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Wednesday, May 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Special to The Times

First it was serious, then labeled a joke. Now it's simply a bad idea that got flushed. So an embarrassed Microsoft says of an envisioned bathroom called the iLoo, replete with computer screen and keyboard, wireless Internet and surround-sound. Actually, the iLoo is emblematic — a head of its time. It reminds us what's possible needn't be worthwhile.

True, technology has brought advances in medicine, information management, transportation and U.S. military prowess. And while some fret about high-tech U.S. weaponry, traffic accidents cause four times the fatalities of wars, according to the World Health Organization. That's a jolt. But modernity is killing us more slowly, too.

Take television. Please. My folks hid our 9-inch black-and-white Sony (with the busted antenna) in a closet. I give the dear Luddites credit because researchers now link heavy TV viewing in the early years to increased risk of childhood obesity, and later, Alzheimer's Disease.

In "Television, Drug of the Nation," San Francisco hip-hopper and political activist Michael Franti could almost be rapping about today's vapid and violent video games. "Imagination is sucked out of children with a cathode ray nipple; TV is the only wet nurse that would create a cripple. Maybe the mother of our nation should remind us we're sitting too close."

Yet there's little such civic-mindedness from television networks and other big media combines, where public affairs and news programming provide thin cover for today's incestuous meta-media. That's coverage that glorifies the ownership's far-flung interests, including celebrities on contract, TV shows and movies, publications, sports teams, even jazzy new infotainment products and services.

Thankfully, we can just hit the "off" switch. During National TV Turnoff Week last month, an estimated 7 million people each missed programs depicting 17 murders, another 196 acts of violence, plus 384 ads and hours more hype embedded in programming. I'm for TV Turnoff Year. Better still — as the only worthwhile bumper sticker I've ever seen in Seattle suggests — "Kill Your Television."

If only it were so easy to ditch your car. They're just too necessary for suburbanites, who justifiably seek better housing value and public schools; and for many city dwellers with suburban jobs, or kids.

The reliance on autos means exercise gets isolated from daily routines. This contributes to direct annual medical costs from overweight and obese people now totaling $93 billion in the U.S.

One corrective step: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will spend $70 million for studies and programs intended to boost walking in the suburbs. They'd do well to highlight downtown Kirkland's user-friendly pedestrian links to beach parks and paths, the library and performing arts center, youth sports fields, playgrounds, a mall and — get this — other neighborhoods!

But technology can help here, too. Though it's early, I'm enthusiastic about the proposed suburban monorail system. It could ease auto dependence and strengthen the region's social fabric.

And imagine the employment and social justice benefits from a traffic-free, intra-regional monorail system, as the economy revives. Sharp young graduates of the region's two-year and four-year colleges, including more minorities, could reap real job-related gains from easier mobility — assuming their education isn't short-circuited by computers.

Politicians, public-education leaders and parents must remember core subject mastery comes first. Otherwise, the high-octane push for schooling in computer literacy and other vocational objectives can weaken development of intellect-based survival skills.

They're vital in a constantly modernizing, shareholder-driven marketplace, where technologies change and jobs disappear or head offshore monthly. To stake your future on learning PowerPoint, HTML or aviation maintenance these days is plain dumb.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) underscores technology is no silver bullet in education. NBER reports billions in federal funds have been spent on student computers and Internet capabilities in schools over the past four years, but data from California indicate no uptick in reading, math or science achievement-test scores.

Priorities should include more direct instruction time in those subjects, and writing. Also crucial are better, not just more, teachers; plus parents deeply involved in learning preparedness.

Reflexive flogging of technology in the classroom and beyond puts a profit-driven ethos over first-order constructs such as intelligent resource allocation and the common good.

Yes, working on a laptop in a Wi-Fi-enabled coffeehouse can constitute progress. However, the whole digital services scrum — such big news these days — is hard to validate. On-call lackeys, networked refrigerators and e-commerce-ready TVs are history; but now Microsoft says its online video gaming "communities" will boost demand for other digital entertainment options.

I know just where the very latest amusements belong. In the iLoo.

Matt Rosenberg is a Seattle writer and regular contributor to The Times' editorial pages. E-mail him at oudist@nwlink.com.

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