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Whatever its variations, there is an inevitability about the computerization of America. Commercial efficiency requires it, Big Government requires it, modern life requires it, and so it is coming to pass. But the essential element in this sense of inevitability is the way in which the young take to computers: not as just another obligation imposed by adult society but as a game, a pleasure, a tool, a system that fits naturally into their lives. Unlike anyone over 40, these children have grown up witl TV screens; the computer is a screen that responds to them, hooked to a machine that can be programmed to respond the way they want it to. That is power.
There are now more than 100,000 computers in U.S. schools, compared with 52,000 only 18 months ago. This is roughly one for every 400 pupils. The richer and more progressive states do better. Minnesota leads with one computer for every 50 children and a locally produced collection of 700 software programs. To spread this development more evenly and open new doors for business, Apple has offered to donate one computer to every public school in the U S.—a total of 80,000 computers worth $200 million retail—if Washington will authorize a 25% tax write-off (as is done for donations of scientific equipment to colleges). Congress has so far failed to approve the idea, but California has agreed to a similar proposal.
Many Americans concerned about the erosion of the schools put faith in the computer as a possible savior of their children's education, at school and at home. The Yankelovich poll showed that 57% thought personal computers would enable children to read and to do arithmetic better Claims William Ridley, Control Data's vice president for education strategy: "If you want to improve youngsters one grade level in reading, our PLATO program with teacher supervision can do it up to four times faster and for 40% less expense than teachers alone."
No less important than this kind of drill, which some critics compare with the old-fashioned flash cards, is the use of computers to teach children about computers. They like to learn programming, and they are good at it, often better than their teachers, even in the early grades. They treat it as play, a secret skill, unknown among many of their parents. They delight in cracking corporate security and filching financial secrets, inventing new games and playing them on military networks, inserting obscene jokes into other people's programs. In soberer versions that sort of skill will become a necessity in thousands of jobs opening up in the future. Beginning in 1986, Carnegie-Mellon University expects to require all of its students to have their own personal computers. "People are willing to spend a large amount of money to educate their children," says Author Fishman. "So they're all buying computers for Johnny to get a head start (though I have not heard anyone say, 'I am buying a computer for Susie')."
This transformation of the young raises a fundamental and sometimes menacing question: Will the computer change the very nature of human thought? And if so, for better or worse? There has been much time wasted on the debate over whether computers