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Surfin' Their Lives Away
(First published in Chicon 2000 Progress Report #4)

A popular convention panel topic is science fiction’s dubious record as prophecy. “Why didn’t SF writers predict personal computers?  And how could they ever have predicted personal helicopters?” Such questions are always good for a few ironic chuckles, coupled with assurances that, pace Jules Verne, the genre’s task is not to furnish a road map of future technological developments.

But sometimes our modest desire to shrug off the seer’s mantle is excessively humble. One of the stock examples of the failure of foresight is the Internet, that suddenly ubiquitous and all-important presence in our daily lives. Yet the example is ill-chosen. Science fiction did, in fact, foretell the Internet, or something very like it - only as a vast, intrusive evil rather than a benign bringing of prosperity and uplift.

The quasi-Internet that appeared in stories from roughly the 30's through the 60's was omnipresent, delivered information in an instant, made possible pushbutton communication and dominated large areas of commerce. And, often if not invariably, it was seen as an instrument of tyranny, whether human, as in Orwell’s 1984, or cybernetic, as in countless tales of supercomputer despots. (Most frightening of all were the instances in which the author supposed that humanity would be better off under such despotism.)

To a large extent, the hostile prognosis was the effect of assuming that a sophisticated communications and information network would have to be maintained by a central authority that would be in a position to “see all, know all and control all”. It turned out in reality that a diffuse system with scarcely any center could do the job better. The annoying and threatening aspects of the Internet - data thefts, spam, viruses - stem from decentralization and lack of control, the precise opposite of the disease that was anticipated.

The old paranoia about being “connected” now seems rather quaint. Far from worrying about “Big Brother”, politicians and commentators outdo themselves in enthusiasm about the Internet’s vital, beneficently revolutionary role in education, commerce, relationships and just about every other area of human endeavor. There are shadows in the sunlight, to be sure: “Web addicts” and porn rings and the cracker underground. But those are minor, remediable blemishes, rendering the glorious future all the brighter by contrast.

There are moments, though, when I begin to think that yesterday’s paranoids had the right idea in general, regardless of their errors concerning details. The Internet is a marvelous convenience. I have almost forgotten what it used to be like to endure newsprint-stained fingers, to search frantically for the name of a half-remembered restaurant, to despair of locating a book that had disappeared from the shelves at Barnes & Noble or to trade a dozen telephone calls in order to schedule dinner with a friend. To the extent, though, that the Internet fundamentally changes the way in which people live and learn and work and deal with one another, its impact leaves much to be desired. It may, one fears, be more pernicious than any digital Colossus.

Young students are among the most oft-proclaimed Internet beneficiaries, and the government is currently spending billions to make every classroom in the country “Internet-capable”. Let’s imagine that it reaches that goal and surges beyond, to the point where the World Wide Web is an integral part of teaching. What will that mean for education?

The Internet’s anticipated role in education is as a gigantic repository of facts. Compared to a library, it has two purported virtues: a larger quantity of data and superior indexing. Unfortunately, the former is an illusion and the latter is of dubious value.

The information on the Internet is, without doubt, more up-to-date in many areas than that in the average high school library. It is not, however, more extensive. Billions of words appear on Web sites, but those represent a minuscule fraction of the content of the world’s books. Moreover, what is digitally accessible is an almost-random selection, heavily weighted toward titles in the public domain and sometimes skewed by peculiar agendas. The student who wishes to learn about, say, the American Civil War has far less to choose from on the Web than in the local library. If his subject is more obscure, the gap rapidly widens.

Within the Web’s truncated universe of knowledge, research is marginally easier than among rows of books - sometimes. The ability to pinpoint particular words is helpful, but so is the intelligence of a human indexer. For the beginning scholar, who scarcely knows what magic words will lead to pertinent text, the latter surely has the edge.

The real issue, though, is not the Internet’s quality as a research tool but its effect on how impressionable pupils think and learn. More than pure information, a child needs knowledge (ordered, accessible, usable information) and the techniques of reasoning. What fosters those qualities is attention to sustained, coherent argumentation and narrative. The Internet’s fast-moving, TV-like properties are, at least in the present and foreseeable state of technology, detrimental to the development of knowledge and reasoning power. Data race by in snippets, and one can scarcely avoid the temptation to leap from one search engine “hit” to the next, looking for The Answer to whatever question has been posed.

After a dozen years of that kind of demi-intellectual exercise, the victim will know only how to look, not how to think, and will probably be too old to embark on the task of scrapping his old mental habits and imbibing new ones. A generation that learns from the Internet will lack the capacity to maintain, much less perfect, so complex and delicate a construct.

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