SOLOMON: Motherhood, Apple Pie and Computers
As summer gets underway, top politicians are eager to let us know that they believe in computers."One of the goals should be to replace all textbooks with a PC," House Speaker Newt Gingrich said at a computer trade show in Atlanta. "I would hope within five years they would have no more textbooks."Meanwhile, Al Gore repeated his pledge "to put computers in every classroom and library, giving every child the tools to succeed." The vice president is insisting on a tight deadline: the year 2000.Imagine -- no more textbooks, just plenty of computers. What an advanced society! Of course, millions of American school kids will still be malnourished due to poverty, but they'll get to sit at computer terminals.By now, one of the civic rituals of government officials and journalists is to keep extolling the latest computer technologies as indicators of a glorious future. It's part of a huge fixation on form over content. Whatever else happens, rest assured that the computers will run on time.Various forms of computer verbiage have become so prominent in the mass culture that we're in danger of suffocating from techno-babble. Endless talk about software, innovations in cyberspace, market-share battles and the like are apt to displace less digital concerns.With such an abundance of time, intellect and emotion focused on computer technology, it may take a real stretch of imagination to recall that all the gigabytes in the world are less important than human memory.Constant and profuse, the media coverage of computer- related stories doesn't do much to explore some basic questions. For instance: What are the cumulative effects on the people at all those computer keyboards? How can we evaluate the content of the words and images being processed and transmitted? What perspectives never make it to the vast majority of screens?The most insidious thing about digital hype is its tacit disdain for nature. The conceit of much of the computer world is that, in effect, nature is little more than a set of raw materials -- to be transformed and repackaged as a commodity, then marketed by clever cyber-entrepreneurs.Dazzled by amazing technical achievements, we're invited into a silicon vortex of simulation. The more that reality is "virtual," the more it becomes a self-parody that is proud of itself. But the wonders of a walk in the forest cannot be replicated away from trees.In the years ahead, many youngsters will probably discover Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World" on CD-ROM. No doubt, the special effects will enhance the impact. Words alone would pale before the multimedia experience.Captivated by the quantum leaps of computers into almost every realm of life, we're liable to be unduly impressed by the glories of a computerized -- and very corporatized -- status quo.A new survey by the Pew Research Center tells us that 20 percent of Americans are now using the Internet as a news source at least once a week -- a rate that has tripled in the last two years. If you think that's a good thing, take a close look at the featured offerings of America Online, the country's dominant link to cyberspace.Most of what's offered on America Online is the same kind of junk we get from more traditional mass-media outlets. On AOL, the marketplace of ideas is more like a shopping mall of notions.Although some independent journalists and other creative souls have made laudable use of the World Wide Web, the overall direction of the Internet is being driven by capital -- lots of it. But with a big enough hard drive and suitably advanced software, we can fancy ourselves to be -- in the words of Wired magazine -- "digital revolutionaries.""People can be induced to swallow anything," the dramatist Jean Moliere wrote more than 300 years ago, "provided it is sufficiently seasoned with praise." In 1998, the consuming mania for the computer flatters us with inclusion in its miraculous operations.