Within minutes of Sunday's announcement that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is working with a threat-evaluation company to develop a computer program that helps school administrators spot dangerous students near the brink of violence, the e-mail began.
Although the new program was widely described in the mainstream media as a valuable tool for defusing violence, plenty of geeks and nerds -- especially younger ones -- knew better, and saw it in a different, perhaps wiser, context.
"It worries me a great deal, wrote The Hollow Man. "Can you make us heard about this? Voice our concerns? This tool will be making diversity a wrong, [and will be used] for alienating and ostracizing those who are different." Hollow Man described himself as a "very, very worried geek."
But he's also a smart one, and history is on the side of his well-founded fears.
Geek Profiling, the Post-Columbine nationwide American war on the culture and lifestyles of the different, the alienated, and the non-Normal, has climbed to another Orwellian level, thanks to a federal law enforcement agency and a threat-evaluation computer program.
After the Columbine High massacre, American educators, politicians and journalists concluded that guns, values or a twisted educational system weren't the problem. It was, especially, those geeks who were online a lot, who gamed, listened to the wrong music, wore the wrong clothes, rejected sports and other reigning social conventions, engaged in rebellious, defiant or "inappropriate" speech or dress.
Even though violence -- and fear of violence -- among the young has been declining sharply for years, media and political ignorance of kids, technology and culture has only deepened. The only demonstrable links in the recent spate of horrific school shootings - still a very rare occurrence - suggest that trouble arises when emotionally-disturbed adolescent white males gain access to guns. In the months after Columbine, however, there is no federal or nationwide program to help emotionally disturbed kids or to keep them away from lethal weapons.
The answer, most schools seem to have concluded, isn't examining their own structures, values or curriculum, but in enforcing widespread conformity. Stop dressing strangely, behaving individualistically, engaging in non-traditional recreation, or speaking honestly.
Now there is Mosaic-2000, with its promised ability to confidentially (read secretly) vet and rate potentially violent students on a scale of 1 to 10. It is not yet clear where this information will be stored or who, precisely, will have access to it or for how long. But it seems plausible that anonymous complaints, aberrant behavior or teacher hostility could be stored digitally in a student file for the rest of their lives.
Some administrators can't wait to test Mosaic-2000. One Ohio principal whose school is getting Mosaic-2000 told a newspaper that Mosaic's "immediate virtue would be in producing detailed documentation of its evaluation of a troubled student so that doubting parents could no longer challenge an administrator's judgement as too subjective." Now parents defending their dangerous kids will have the ATF and Mosaic to contend with as well as school bureaucrats.
Mosaic's programs, according to The New York Times, rely on carefully - worded questions about student behavior based on case histories of people who have turned violent. They're designed by Gavin de Becker Inc., a private security and software company in California (de Becker came to prominence garnering tons of publicity protecting Hollywood celebrities), and are intended to help officials discern a real threat amid varied outbursts, threats and warning signs. For the past 10 years, the company has tailored risk-assessment programs for special law-enforcement programs dealing with problems from domestic violence to terrorism.
This is an astounding elevation of the unthinking deployment of computer technology as a social -- and profit-making tool to make intuitive judgements in educational environments that often confound experts with years of training.
The Mosaic school program promises questions carefully crafted from case histories by 200 experts in law enforcement, psychiatry and other areas. It will include a variety of concerns beyond alarming talk, ranging from the availability of guns to reported abuse of domestic pets.
"I think it's a wonderful tool that has a great deal of potential, and I hope it's properly used by the schools," said Andrew Vita, associate director of field operations for the ATF, which has used the Mosaic approach to investigate abortion-clinic bombings.
Mosaic is also used by Yale University and federal courthouses to evaluate the potential for violence of individuals who make threats. None of the many media stories about Mosaic in the past few days even raised the question of why such a Draconian security program -- do we really want schools to be run like federal courthouses? -- would be deployed against schoolchildren at a time when violence among the young has dropped to its lowest levels in nearly half a century.
Don't hold your breath about that. Since it's simpler and more expedient to blame the Net and harmless subcultures like the Goths or computer games like "Doom" or TV shows like "South Park" for violence, schools have been granted what amounts to hunting licenses with few restrictions. Kids like Hollow Man have every right to be worried that they'll be punished for what they think, wear, say or do on weekends.
In any other context, a government-sponsored computer program offered by a law enforcement agency and a private security firm to enter school systems and track down certain types of students in schools would trigger howls of protest. As long as we're deploying Mosaic-2000, why stop at "potentially violent" oddballs? Why not get to the really dangerous people loose in schools, maybe programming Mosaic to hunt down and identify religious fanatics such as those who believe in the literal truth of the Bible and reject Darwin and evolution? Aren't they a threat to school science programs?
Will Mosaic be used to identify bullies who exclude, ridicule, beat up and harass kids who choose to be different, driving them into the fringes of school life?
Might it prove helpful in identifying oppressive and unimaginative educators who cling to antiquated curriculums and passive teaching environments, even though many of their brightest students have vastly more creative and stimulating lives online than they do in school?
What about social cliques that believe the most important part of their school year centers around parties where they drink themselves into oblivion and, afterwards, are prone to elevated rates of sexual assault and automobile accidents?
Or school administrators and guidance counselors who know so little about some of their students or the nature of their own schools that they are shocked and uncomprehending when some kids become severely disturbed or enraged, even sometimes to the point of stockpiling and using guns and bombs?
Hollow Man and most geeks and other know better. Mosaic 2000 is out to vet them, and others who dares to define themselves differently from the normal as defined by unknown people working for private firms and government agencies.
Federal law enforcement agencies and private, for profit security companies have no legal mandate or business in schools, deploying computer programs to compile information on kids.
Federal agencies like the ATF and DEA haven't been able to put much of a dent in gun or drug traffic. Why would anybody cede them the duty of sifting through the complex sociocultural world of high school?
Programs like Mosaic-2000 are another nightmare from the Hellmouth that school is for so many kids. They are an abdication of responsibility and a lame excuse for schools to seek out the often creative, individualistic, idiosyncratic and rebellious students with whom they have battled for eons, and who cause them so many problems.
Violence is almost never one of them.