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Tech Futures

Do too many tech safeguards hinder kids' learning? Author and tech blogger Cory Doctorow says yes.

March/April 2009

In the opening pages of Cory Doctorow’s latest young-adult novel, Little Brother, a teenage hacker subverts the security systems of his high school. He breaches a protected computer network, fools surveillance cameras, disables radio-frequency identification tags, and makes all sorts of tech-savvy mischief. But the book isn’t merely a techno-thriller; it includes detailed instructions on how readers can do these hacks themselves. Along the way, the book raises thorny ethical questions that should foster lively discussion between students and administrators.

Needless to say, Doctorow, a Canadian author, activist, and co-editor of the tech blog Boing Boing , has strong opinions about how administrators should approach questions of security and technology. His latest collection of essays on technology and creativity, entitled Content, was published late last year. Scholastic Administrator contacted him at his home in London, England.

Q: In your novel, kids are far more comfortable with technology than their teachers and administrators are.

A: One of the major findings of a study by Digital Youth Research on the way kids use technology is that the two categories of things that kids do with the Internet, “worthy things” and “leisure activities,” are really the same thing. When you limit one, you limit the other. The way that kids gain technological fluency and literacy—and the spirit of inquiry that makes their explorations so advanced and so confident—is by messing around with their friends online. It’s peer learning, peer inspiration. When educators draw a distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy,” they are forever putting themselves between the kids and the goals they have set for those kids. The kids either stop listening to you, or end up having to subvert you to get the job done.

Q: Your main character, a San Francisco high schooler, claims that he is “one of the most surveilled people in the world.” Aren’t security measures needed to protect students?

A: I think part of the definition of “secure” is having your privacy intact. It means controlling under what circumstances you disclose information about your private life. If you start by saying privacy and security are different things, you always end up concluding that we need to sacrifice privacy for security. It’s fundamentally less secure to design systems that gather [private] information that could be harmful to the user than it is to design systems that don’t gather that information—because once the information is gathered, an attacker to the system might gain access to it. You have to start with protecting the privacy of kids, because that’s integral to protecting their security needs.

Q: In your novel, the narrator gives the reader a number of tutorials on circumventing surveillance and security systems. It feels like you’re giving away secrets, but these techniques aren’t really unknown, are they?

A: If I know about them, and I can explain how a 17-year-old can do them, we have to assume that bad guys know this stuff, too. [False secrecy] does two very negative things: It subverts our ability to be secure, and it gives us a false sense of security. We lower our guard, we become less diligent, and we make assumptions that may not be right about where and how we’re safe.

Q: How have the educators you’ve spoken with on your book tour reacted to Little Brother?

A: Pretty positively. Teachers are often frustrated by strictures placed on them by higher levels of administration. Talk to any teacher about the adult-content blocks on their network access. God help you if you assign a unit on breast cancer, because all the useful pages are blocked. And school librarians just hate that they have to install this stuff.

Q: Isn’t it a part of an educator’s job to set limits?

A: It’s not that there shouldn’t be limits; part of a teacher’s job is to set appropriate limits. I think that adolescence is a period of necessary recklessness, because everything you do at that age, you’re doing for the first time. Adults are responsible for helping young people navigate this period of recklessness. But those limits should be informed by clear-eyed ideas about what will make kids safer, and not by things that just make adults feel better. If it were easy, then anyone could do it. This is why we have a class of professional educators!

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