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  • Net-based Learning Communities

    This is Chapter 12 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Entering a classroom, the sixth-grade girl sits down at her terminal and composes an email message to her "Net pal" in India. The two of them are comparing notes about efforts to save endangered species in their separate localities, as part of a class project. Their messages, discharged across the Internet, reach their destinations within minutes. Each child's excitement about making contact is palpable.

    In later years, these children may even chance to meet, and their email exchanges will have prepared them to accept each other on equal terms, rather than to be put off by cultural barriers.

    An attractive picture? I once thought so. But even assuming this sort of thing to be one of the bright promises of the Net, I doubt we will see its broad realization any time soon. Why? Because the promise is being overwhelmed by sentimentality, uncritical futurism, and the worship of technology. We're seeing an unhealthy romanticization of the Net.

    The world is disappearing from the child

    Allow me a brief flanking movement here. It's now routine for social critics to bemoan the artificial, fantasy-laden, overstimulating (yet passive) environments in which our children grow up. I'm not sure the bemoaning helps any, but I believe the concerns are largely justified. The problem is that they too rarely strike through to the heart of the matter. For if the child must fill up his existence with "virtual" realities and artificial stimulation, it is because we have systematically deprived him -- not to mention ourselves -- of the real world.

    Link together in your mind a few simple facts, many of them commonplaces:

    Schools have become ghettos for the young. Perhaps for the first time in history, our century has seen children strictly cut off from meaningful connection to the world of adult work. That work is hidden away behind the walls of the industrial park, or else has disappeared into the remote, intangible, and opaque processes magically conducted through the screens of computers. Likewise, all the once-local functions of government have become distant, invisible abstractions, wholly disconnected from what the child observes going on around him. The evening news concerns events he must find hard to distinguish from last night's movie. The ubiquitous television serves in addition to cut him off from meaningful interaction with his own family. Even the eternal inevitabilities have become invisible; sickness and death are but the rumors of a sanitized mystery enacted behind closed doors in the hospital -- grandmother will not utter her last groans and die untidily on the couch in the living room. And perhaps most importantly (but this receives littl