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Class Four: Oppenheimer Introduction-Chapter 5

Americans, Technology, and Decision-Making- Learning from the Past

Example 1- Farming Equipment Technology and The Great American Dust Bowl (1930’s)

“No longer did Fred Folkers have to cut his wheat with a mule-drawn header, stacking it in piles
to be threshed later. A tractor did the work of ten horses. With his new combine, Folkers could
cut and thresh the grain in one swoop, using just a fraction of the labor.” (Egan, 2006, p. 47)

“Americans are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the
land,” said the new president, Herbert Hoover, who took office in 1929. The tractors rolled on,
the grass yanked up, a million acres a year, turned and pulverized; in just five years, 1925 to
1930, another 5.2 million acres of native sod went under the plow in the southern plains- an area
the size of two Yellowstone National Parks.” (Egan, 2006, p.58)

“It was not the fault of the weather, although this persistent drought certainly didn’t help. The
great unraveling seemed to be caused by man. How could it be that people had farmed the same
ground for centuries in other countries and not lost the soil, while Americans had been on the
land barely a generation and had stripped it of its life-giving layers? Of all the countries in the
world, we Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race of people barbaric or
civilized,” Bennett said in a speech at the start of the dust storms. What was happening, he said,
was “sinister”, a symptom of “our stupendous ignorance.” (Egan, 2006, p.125)

-Excerpts from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan


Example 2 – Automobile Technology and Humans (1960’s)

“The modern car interposes a filter between the driver and the world he is moving through.
Sounds, smells, sensations of touch and weather are all diluted in comparison with what the
pedestrian experiences. Vision is framed and limited; the driver is relatively inactive. He has less
opportunity to stop, explore, or choose his path than does the man on foot.” (Appleyard, Lynch,
& Myer, 1965, p.106)

“The car is now the defining technology of our built environment. It sets the form of our cities
and towns. It dictates the scale of streets, the relationship between buildings, the need for vast
parking areas, and the speed at which we experience our environment. Somewhere between
convenience and congestion, the auto dominates what were once diverse streets shared by
pedestrians, cyclists, trolleys, and the community at large.” (Calthorpe, 1991, p.112)

“When I was five years old I played in the street. There was no fear of being hit by a car because
the street was a Play Street. This may be an unknown phenomenon to many children of today, but
when I was growing up, the Play Street was the center of my universe! My block of Thompson
Street, which ran between Canal and Grand Streets in what is now called SoHo, was guarded by a
white sign with black lettering atop a pole anchored in cement. Its borders were a church, a
basketball court, a luncheonette, and the Grand Street Bus. The traffic thundered across Canal
Street, yet Play Street was a safe haven where we could romp, minimally supervised from dawn
until dusk. And did we play! The neighborhood consisted of tenement buildings that surrounded
the street so that our mothers could glance out of the window to check up on us from time to time.
If we were out of sight, one call would bring us running into view. This flexibility let us develop
a sense of independence at an early age. And there was always some adult on the street- just in
case. Everyone looked out for everyone else in those days, and kept an eye on the children.”
(Pantoliano, 1991, p. 123-124)

The decline of public space as described by Jane Jacobs:

“Traffic arteries, along with parking lots, filling stations and drive-in movies, are powerful and
insistent instruments of city destruction. To accommodate them city streets are broken down into
loose sprawls, incoherent and vacuous spaces for anyone on foot. Downtowns and other
neighborhoods that are marvels of close grained intricacy and compact mutual support are
casually disemboweled. Landmarks are crumbled or are so sundered from their contents in city
life as to become irrelevant trivialities. City character is blurred until every place becomes more
like every other place, all adding up to no place. And in the areas most defeated, uses that cannot
stand functionally alone- shopping malls, or residences, or places of public assembly, or centers
of work- are severed from one another.” (Jacobs,1965, p.120)

-Excerpts from The Ecology of the Automobile by Peter Freund and George Martin


Example 3- The Push for Classroom Computers (as compared to the release of mental patients in the 60’s)

“(“The push for classroom computers is certainly not as dramatic or as wrenching as what
happened to hospital patients.” Cuban acknowledged. Yet he saw enough of a link to draw a
lesson. “In dealing with lives, young or old,” he wrote, “patience and public refection on both the
anticipated and unanticipated consequences of policies are in order, rather than the headlong
plunge into change followed by a heartfelt apology years later.”)” (Oppenheimer, 2003, p. 60)

-Excerpt from The Flickering Mind by Todd Oppenheimer

Discussion Questions:

1. Jane Jacobs describes the decline of public space due to the onset of automobiles. Negroponte predicted
people will live in “digital neighborhoods” in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a
different role. (Oppenheimer, 2004, p.xiv) How do we use time and space differently in 2010 compared
with 1965- or even 1995?

2. The first e-lusion is that high technology can be controlled. How are children different today than from
the days of the Play Street as described by Pantoliano? How has playing and adult supervision adapted over

3. Do you agree with Jed Perl’s statement- “nobody knows how to look anymore?” (Oppenheimer, 2004,

4. Will any heartfelt apologies be required for decisions made in education regarding computer technology?
If so, from whom?

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