Mr. Sterling and I have been invited here to dream in public. Dreaming
in public is an important part of our job description, as science
fiction writers, but there are bad dreams as well as good dreams.
We're dreamers, you see, but we're also realists, of a sort. Realistically
speaking, I look at the proposals being made here and I marvel.
A system that in some cases isn't able to teach basic evolution,
a system bedeviled by the religious agendas of textbook censors,
now proposes to throw itself open to a barrage of ultra high bandwidth
information from a world of Serbian race-hatred, Moslem fundamentalism,
and Chinese Mao Zedong thought. A system that has managed to remain
largely unchanged since the 19th Century now proposes to jack in,
bravely bringing itself on-line in an attempt to meet the challenges
of the 21st. I applaud your courage in this. I see green shoots
attempting to break through the sterilized earth.
I believe that the national adventure you now propose is of quite
extraordinary importance. Historians of the future -- provided good
dreams prevail -- will view this as having been far more crucial
to the survival of democracy in the United States than rural electrification
or the space program.
But many of America's bad dreams, our sorriest future scenarios,
stem from a single and terrible fact: there currently exists in
this nation a vast and disenfranchised underclass, drawn, most shamefully,
along racial lines, and whose plight we are dangerously close to
accepting as a simple fact of life,a permanent feature of the American
What you propose here, ladies and gentlemen, may well represent
nothing less than this nation's last and best hope of providing
something like a level socio-economic playing field for a true majority
of its citizens.
In that light, let me make three modest proposals.
In my own best-case scenario, every elementary and high school
teacher in the United States of America will have unlimited and
absolutely cost-free professional access to long-distance telephone
service. The provision of this service could be made, by law, a
basic operation requirement for all telephone companies. Of course,
this would also apply to cable television.
By the same token, every teacher in every American public school
will be provided, by the manufacturer, on demand, and at no cost,
with copies of any piece of software whatever -- assuming that said
software's manufacturer would wish their product to be commercially
available in the United States.
What would this really cost us, as a society? Nothing. It would
only mean a so-called loss of potential revenue for some of the
planet's fattest and best-fed corporations. In bringing computer
and network literacy to the teachers of our children, it would pay
for itself in wonderful and wonderfully unimaginable ways. Where
is the R&D support for teaching? Where is the tech support for
our children's teachers? Why shouldn't we give our teachers a license
to obtain software, all software, any software, for nothing?
Does anyone demand a licensing fee, each time a child is taught
Any corporation that genuinely wishes to invest in this country's
future should step forward now and offer services and software.
Having thrived under democracy, in a free market, the time has come
for these corporations to demonstrate an enlightened self-interest,
by acting to assure the survival of democracy and the free market
-- and incidentally, by assuring that virtually the entire populace
of the United States will become computer-literate potential consumers
within a single generation.
Stop devouring your children's future in order to meet your next
My third and final proposal has to do more directly with the levelling
of that playing field. I propose that neither of my two previous
proposals should apply in any way to private education.
National Academy of Sciences Convocation on Technology and Education.
Washington D. C., May 10, 1993.
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