Slaves of the cyberculture

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 13 May 1999

GEOCITIES is rapidly becoming one of the biggest and most popular sites on the Internet’s World Wide Web. The secret of its success is that it gives away free home pages and e-mail addresses, and anyone can sign up online. It’s a good place to put baby pictures for friends and family, club newslettters, or to experiment with Web design ideas. But free pages also provide a great opportunity for individuals and less-commercial groups to make a wider impact. For example, WIN (Women’s International Net), has put the first issue of its monthly e-zine at www. geocities. com/Wellesley/ 3321/ and made it available by e-mail from winmagazine@geocities. com THE International Campaign to Ban Landmines, having won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, has opened a Web site at www. landmine. org to solicit donations. The Campaign was already on the Web on the Vietnam Veterans of America site at www. vvaf. org/landmine/ The UN’s CyberSchoolBus is launching a landmine project and Web site on October 24. See www. un. org/ pubs/cyberschoolbus/banmines NASA is tracking the Cassini mission to Saturn at www. jpl. nasa. gov/ cassini/ Paper aeroplane fans can even download and build a scale model of the spacecraft (plutonium not included).

If you haven’t discovered it yet, where have you been? You definitely need to know about Need To Know, the supremely well informed site at www. ntk. net that describes itself as the weekly high-tech sarcastic update for the UK. And it’s fun. SCOTGEIST has just been launched by the Glasgow Herald, and offers ‘a new platform for Scottish creativity’ at www. scotgeist. com There’s a link from that to the paper’s new site on the second Scottish Enlightenment at www. e2-herald. com BEDLAM (Bethlem Royal Hospital) is at www. museum-london. org. uk in conjunction with the Museum of London’s latest exhibition, Custody, Care & Cure, 1247-1997.

TITLE of the week is Eff/in-fluence, a ‘Webwork’ that Jenny Jones has produced for an exhibition by British artists being held at the Shoe String Gallery in New Jersey. Go to www.

users. dircon. co. uk/incubata/ This is not Jenny Jones (‘Your Body is Tight . . . But Your Clothes Just Ain’t Right!’) the American chat show hostess, who can be found online at www. jennyjones. com THINKQUEST, an annual contest for educational Web sites produced by school children, has been such a success that it’s being extended to younger entrants with ThinkQuest Jr at www. advanced. org/tq-junior/ However, the first contest is for US schools only.

GVU - Georgia Tech’s Graphics, Visualisation & Usability Centre - has started its eighth survey of Web users. You can fill in the forms at www-survey. cc. gatech. edu/ until November 10.

OFFICIAL Web sites continue to spring up all over the Internet.

Examples include Barney the purple dinosaur at barneyonline. com DVD Video (www. dvdvideogroup. com), Hopalong Cassidy (www. hopalong. com), Motown (www. motown. com) and Timberland (www. timberland. com) UNOFFICIAL Web sites are getting more likely to be squeezed out. The admittedly useless Q-tips page at www. bway. net/you/qtip. html is under legal attack from the trademark’s owner, the Chesebrough- Ponds Company, for example.

You can contact Jack Schofield at jack@cix. compulink. co. uk

A few students in the cyberculture class I teach at New York University just conducted an interesting survey. They interviewed more than 125 children in elementary school about computers - what they are, how much they like them, whether they own them and, most importantly, where and how they use them.

As expected, wealthy children - those in an expensive private school - knew the most about computers. Every student had his or her own laptop (a school requirement) on which to do homework.

Poorer children who used computers mostly in their after school programs, had a bit less knowledge of how the machines worked. And only about half had access to a computer at home. But these kids liked computers a whole lot better than their wealthy, cyberliterate counterparts.

Only 52% of the private school students said they like to use computers, compared with 100% of the public school children. While only 60% of private school students believe it is necessary to learn how to use a computer at all, close to 90% of public school children see computer literacy as a necessary life skill.

Why should this be? Because the wealthy young laptop owners already experience their computers as encumbrances, while those who use them after school still see computers as the portals to more fun and better lives.

Consider the responses to the simple question of whether they enjoy computers, and why. The public (state) school children liked computers because they are ‘smart’, ‘fun to use’, ‘they can help you get a job’, ‘it takes my mind off things’.

The wealthy young laptop owners hated computers because ‘they don’t work’, ‘I have to lug it to school every day’, ‘it’s slow and weighs a lot’, ‘they break easily’, ‘you are constantly losing work from them’ and ‘they generate 300% more work’.

They sound a lot like most adults I know who have had to use computers for their jobs. Once the machines are mandatory, they’re a lot less fun. Rather than holding the promise of a new improved life, computers simply expose their users to more risks.

The laptop-toting children were charged with maintaining their machines the way we used to have to take care of animals back when I was in school. But the machines don’t reciprocate for this care with love or even cuteness. They are simply the source of more responsibility and more work. The kids were all afraid of losing their data, and nearly everyone recounted an awful personal experience of a crash in which a paper or test was lost. When the machines functioned properly, they simply allowed teachers to assign more homework.

It’s hard to say who is getting the better computer education. By being burdened with their own computers and made to do their schoolwork through a keyboard, the wealthiest of American students see the machines as the extension of slave-driving teachers, the source of anxiety, and a maintenance chore. Those who only use the machines more occasionally and absolutely voluntarily, on the other hand, still feel that computers are a way to have fun, get ahead, and increase one’s chances of competing in the future.

My students who conducted this survey concluded that computers are being over-taught in the private school. If these children weren’t given their own computers, the machines might still have held their great allure. By turning these wonderful technologies into the source of labour and responsibility, educators risk killing the joy of computing for the children they hope to enrich.

True enough. Keeping computers separate from the drudgery of regular schoolwork for a few years might be a good idea. If children can be shown that the computer is a machine with nearly infinite possibilities rather than a homework device, they’ll almost certainly become better and more open-minded programmers as adults.

Still, I can’t help thinking that the sad, computer-hating children of the private school have a more accurate sense of the way computers have affected our lives so far. For the first year or so, each of us is thrilled by the computer’s bells and whistles. But once our employment becomes dependent on these machines - and once we lose an important document to the ether before a big meeting, our perspective abruptly changes.