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Retrograde: Scanners at School

Fingerprint scanners: They’ve been sprouting up everywhere from computers to time clocks, even purses. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the news that this fall a middle school in Florida will be rolling them out in classrooms and school buses.

Fingerprint scanners: They’ve been sprouting up everywhere from computers to time clocks, even purses. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the news that this fall a middle school in Florida will be rolling them out in classrooms and school buses. That’s right, instead of raising their hands when teachers take attendance at Don Estridge High Tech Middle School, students will scan them in on a $2000 pad. And it’s not just for morning attendance. Hand scanners will be set up to log students on and off the bus, in and out of classrooms, and to and from the cafeteria. Scanners will even be deployed in the school office and media center.

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And right, ok, there are some good arguments about security and safety here (little Billy never has to worry about losing his ID card; we know when and where he got off the bus) but such tech “upgrades” have secondary effects that only bring us closer and closer to the machines we create (What did Billy eat for lunch? How much time did he spend in the cafeteria? How much time in the hallway? How much time in the bathroom?) Need proof? Check out the stats FC uncovered this month on the monitoring going on in the workplace: In 1997, 15% of major US companies monitored employees’ email. Today, that number is 52%, and even higher amongst companies that consider themselves especially ethical [See the story here.]

Paradoxically, science has brought us to the point where something as personal as a fingerprint winds up feeling impersonal, a point where something unique feels anonymous. Sheesh! Computer tracking is already pervasive for adults, and now it’s making its way into the under-18 community. As if puberty weren’t hard enough already. 1984, A Brave New World, Player Piano: anybody who’s read these books knows humanity’s innate distaste for absolute automation. Even this summer’s blockbuster “I, Robot” plays on the theme. Box us in and we wind up thinking, well, in the box.

Consider this: would a Montessori school employ such automated methods? How about a Country Day school? Probably not – because these kinds of alternative programs promote fresh, imaginative environments. Monitoring, scanning, and tracking, despite being systematically superior to their fallible forebears, are just that: systems. Like punching a clock. Except, for eleven-year-olds. Which may work for the formalities of the workplace, but… school? Art class, recess, band…

It’s a simple shift of interfaces: from human to human, to machine to human. But what it represents is a much greater shift – from personal to impersonal. The close proximity of hard-wired technology to soft, malleable minds promotes an atmosphere of sharp edges (zeros and ones, blacks and whites) where a child is that much closer to becoming – or at least feeling like – nothing more than a number. Or as anonymous as a fingerprint.

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