SOLOMON: "Virtual History" ... and Virtual Mendacity

This spring, thousands of youngsters have gotten involved in "the ultimate multimedia exploration of the American experience."Virtual history is here -- wrapped in a red-white-and-blue package that bears the venerable imprint of American Heritage magazine and promises "the only software your kids will ever need to study American history!"A single CD-ROM disk now provides hours of music, video clips, audio narration and "3D virtual reality walkthroughs." It all comes under a lofty title: "The History of the United States for Young People."These days, adults are often pleased to see children sitting at computers and learning with a few keystrokes. The scene is so modern ... so 21st century!The kids are learning, all right. But what?If they're studying, say, the Vietnam War, the computer tells about the escalation of U.S. "air strikes" and then explains: "By the end of the 1960s, bombing raids had become an almost daily occurrence." But the CD-ROM wizardry never gets around to the human suffering caused by those "air strikes" and "bombing raids."The narrative slant presents Washington's war makers as well-intentioned champions of democratic values. Ironically, kids who use the glitzy history disk to learn about the war in Vietnam are encountering the same distortions that many of their parents and grandparents rejected three decades ago.Such virtual history may not be any worse than the usual textbook kind. But it can be quite a bit more insidious.A grisly visual image -- a row of human skulls -- appears on the screen when "the South Vietnamese were unable to stop the North Vietnamese advance. In April 1975, communist forces captured Saigon." But the picture of skulls suddenly disappears when other words arrive: "In 1969, President Nixon secretly ordered the bombing of communist bases in Cambodia."Evidently, in cyberhistory, communist bombs cause ghastly horrors while the effects of American bombs don't merit a blip on the screen. How's that for virtual propaganda?If this is "the only software your kids will ever need to study American history," we're in big trouble. If "The History of the United States for Young People" is any indication, the current multimedia innovations are opening new vistas for deceiving the next generation.The more that computers and software become glorified as megabyte beacons of progress for everyday life, the less we hear about GIGO -- one of the basic aphorisms that emerged early in the computer age. "Garbage In, Garbage Out."Vows to put computers in every classroom don't deal with a key question: Are we fixating on the latest gizmos while failing to scrutinize content? The widespread obsessions with technical glitz could amount to perpetual distractions that mesmerize children and adults alike.The American Heritage history disk -- which adapts a big- selling school book for eighth graders -- "makes the textbook really come to life," an official who helped produce the CD-ROM told me. But the ultimate target is grown-ups: "It's really for parents to buy for kids."No one owns America's heritage, of course. But, since 1986, a few rich guys named Forbes have owned American Heritage. Steve Forbes -- the editor in chief of Forbes magazine -- is the CEO of the privately held parent company, Forbes Inc.Forbes ran for president last year and declared: "I want to reduce the (tax) rate further and further and further. We won't get it to zero emissions, you might say, but that wouldn't be a bad goal." That says a lot about what he thinks of government.Joining with Forbes Inc. to produce "The History of the United States for Young People" is Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary of the media giant Viacom. Clearly, the manufacturing of multimedia history for young people is a very big business."Only through history does a nation become completely conscious of itself," wrote the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. "Accordingly, history is to be regarded as the national conscience of the human race."But what happens when we turn over the national conscience to the high-tech market?

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