Farewell, couch potato

Thanks to ever cheaper and more sophisticated computer services, leisure will become more active
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The Independent Culture
BOUGHT ANY computer kit for Christmas? It is quite difficult not to notice that the pages of the papers at the weekend, including this one, were stuffed with advertisements for computers and related products. And if you have happened to buy a computer recently it is quite difficult not to notice how the price for similar machines seems to have halved in the last year. The computer we bought a year ago for pounds 2,000 now goes for less than pounds 1,000 - and they throw in printers and scanners for free.

That is something else that has changed: the extent to which hardware is given away free, while software can still be quite expensive. In The Independent last Saturday they were advertising colour printers at pounds 70, the same price you would pay for a couple of video games. Yet someone has to design and manufacture the printer, put it into a box and ship it around the world. The manufacturing cost of the video game, by contrast, is the few pence needed to stamp out the CD.

It is very hard to make money out of making things; you make money out of the intellectual content of the software. That may be the antics of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider III or it may be a new programme that translates everything on your computer into French. It doesn't matter.

We have become so accustomed to these tumbling prices for computers that we hardly think about the process. When we do it is usually to complain that they are not coming down even faster. There seems to be some justification in these complaints, for it is quite true that prices in the US are lower still. But all this means is that we are now paying the prices Americans were paying last spring.

We have also become so accustomed to the increasing sophistication of software that we hardly blink when we hear of a new voice-recognition program. In fact we probably complain when it doesn't work very well unless you speak to it in a spoof American accent, which it understands better.

But in regarding as normal this plunge in prices of computer hardware and surge in sophistication of software, we are missing something of profound importance - a process that will utterly change our lives. We are glimpsing the early stages of the reversal of a trend that has been running for half a century. We are switching from passive leisure activities to active ones.

For the last 50 years, thanks to ever cheaper and ever more sophisticated television, the tendency has been for leisure activities to become more passive. Now, thanks to ever cheaper and ever more sophisticated computer services, the tendency will be for leisure to become more active.

The wonderful thing about television is that you do not need to be very clever to use it. All you have to do is switch it on. In fact, however clever you are, there is not much you can do with it. You can switch channels and maybe if you are particularly bright you can try to programme the video-recorder. In addition, it is infinitely available: there in the room, ready to be used at no marginal cost. But essentially it is passive, and because it is so powerful a medium, absorbing three or four hours a day, it has sucked much of our leisure time from other, more active pursuits.

Now, quite suddenly, it has a serious challenger: the ever cheaper and ever more capable computer. The cost of a computer is no longer a barrier: in real terms a mid-range computer is now cheaper than a mid-range TV set was 10 years ago. Soon it will be cheaper, while Internet access will become cheaper than the price of a TV licence. Like the TV, the PC is in the home, convenient for immediate use. But unlike the case with a TV set, to use it you have to be active.

The boxes look similar, but people use TV and PCs in completely different ways. They sit in different rooms; we sit different distances from them; we do completely different things with them. You have to do something all the time to make a computer work - play a game, send an e-mail, look up flights on the Internet, write a column for a newspaper.

But time spent on a computer is time not available for watching TV. Television- watching is falling in homes with computers and falling faster in homes where there is also Internet access. The leisure medium that seemed to sweep all before it (and which itself is seeking a great leap forward with digitalisation) is starting a long, slow, gradual retreat. It is not going to disappear; but in relative terms it will become progressively less important.

It is very hard, in the early stages of some great social change, to see clearly the full implications of that change. In any case the rise of the PC (and in particular PCs connected through the Internet) is only one aspect of a more general trend towards active leisure activities rather than passive ones. The number of restaurants is rising; more money is being spent on holidays. But the rise of the computer has the greatest social implications. Here are some guesses at what these might be.

First, the next generation of young adults will be both extremely dextrous and extremely adept at gathering and manipulating information. They will have had hours of training (thanks to computer games) in eye/ hand/ keyboard co-ordination. And they will have had access to the global library of the Internet, plus all the various online or on-disk encyclopaedias. (Encyclopaedia Britannica was thrown in for free, along with the free printer and the free scanner, in one of those ads in Saturday's paper.)

Second, we will have a generation of very well educated people - on average much better educated than their parents.

However, the level of education will be very much self-determined, for education is becoming a bottom-up, demand-driven activity, rather than a top-down, supply-driven one. In the old days, to be well educated you had to be lucky enough to be well taught; increasingly you will need to be bright enough to use computers to teach yourself.

That leads to a third and more worrying probability. Some people will be excluded by the new technology, either because they don't have access to a computer, or because they lack the basic skills to use the kit. (I write as somebody who spent 15 minutes last night trying to programme a number into a cordless phone, before I gave up in disgust.)

Fourth - and leading on from my third guess - societies will become skill- differentiated rather than nationally-differentiated. Clever people in a country like Britain will find they have much in common with similarly educated people everywhere else in the world, while less clever people here will find themselves squeezed out of jobs by brighter people on the other side of the world.

Fifth, this democratisation of knowledge - the fact that anyone with a terminal can gain access to high-quality information - will tend to reduce the power of elites, particularly political elites, everywhere. A really bright six-year-old hitting a computer can, with a bit of help, find out as much about a subject as a typical MP, despite the latter having all the resources of the House of Commons library. That is not meant to be a sneer at the intellectual capacity of our MPs, simply a comment on the fact that the comparative advantage of having a big research department will become much smaller, relative to the comparative advantage of having a good mind.

I can't pretend to be able to see clearly where this democratisation of knowledge will lead society. I am sure that it is as important a change as the spread of compulsory, state-funded education in the last century. And I'm sure, too, that having people using their leisure actively is more likely to lead to a fulfilled and balanced society than to one where leisure is largely passive. That holds true even if the activity consists of zapping away on some computer game.