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The Call Of the Curmudgeon

In a speech to the Family Online Safety Institute conference in Washington Wednesday, Josh Gottheimer, senior counselor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski brought a message from his boss, one he said the chairman has repeatedly made: “We need to end the false debate about embracing new technology or protecting our children. We need to do both.”

I’m all for hugging the closest iPad, but I also want to make sure we are embracing our kids and their welfare with as much zeal as the coolest new app, maybe even moreso.

According to a text of the speech, Gottheimer was accentuating the positives of life online. Not surprisingly since broadband deployment and adoption is job one for the FCC and you can catch more flies with “Behind each click, there is so much that is good,” he said, but stopped short of saying there was also much that was bad, adding only that there was “much that we have to be cautious about.” I would be just as definitive about the downsidse. There is much that is bad, including cyber bullying, child porn, online predators, and invasion of privacy, to name a few. Gottheimer concedes there are “horror stories” about cyber bullying and stalking, but again turns quickly to the positive. “[T]he opportunities of new communications for our kids far exceeds the risks,” he said. I hope he is right.

This is not about picking on Josh, whose speech was even-handedm and even handed me a line I would have used if my daughters had not grown up on me while I was trying to make a living: “What’s scary is that she is probably only nine years away from getting her first cell phone,” he said of his infant daugher. “My only comfort is that she’s thirty years away from her first date.”

I am simly using his speech as yet another platform–OK, soap box–from which to register my concern that the speed of technological change may be outstripping our ability, and even more troublesome our willingness, to think critically about whether being able to do something instantly and easily necessarily makes it better.

Certainly the Web’s digitization of logistics has reduced the space–in distance and time–between need and help, which is surely a good thing. But what are the downsides to always-on, always-there (in digital perpetuity) communications among pre-teens without the governors on their online conduct that time–to mature–and circumspection–hopefully the product of that maturity–would allow for.

Living online via social networks that erase geography and unite common interests may prove to be a great alternative to the back fence and the school playground, or we may want to insure that it does not become a substitute for the real-life versions of avatars.

Now that I have sounded the clarion call of the curmudgeon: “What if, what it what if?, let me add that I essentially live on the computer and have for years. Without it I would probably not have a job, though thanks to it all of us in journalism have to figure out creative ways to keep those jobs.

I’m just saying, to quote the late great Michael Conrad: “Let’s be careful out there.” And let’s treat careful as a virtue, not the dismissible, tar pit-stained-foot-dragging of the old guard.