Strange NEW world


The year is 1958. The early satellites are orbiting the Earth, and the television makes its first appearance in the Aaronovitch household. It shows only the BBC in black and white, its vertical and horizontal holds are dodgy, and my dad (who, despite complete technological incompetence, takes over when any expensive new machinery is bought) has constantly to fumble with the tuning dial and the aerial. The programmes run from early evening until grown-ups' bedtime.

My mother types letters on an old Remington which she can barely lift. Copies are made with carbon paper. The bookshelves groan with volumes bought new and second-hand, and all of us go to the library at least once a week. The radio and the one delivered newspaper tell us what is going on in the world. We have three talking records (Under Milk Wood, Alice in Wonderland, starring Jane Asher, and Gulliver's Travels) for entertainment. Mum dislikes the TV. She believes that it spells the end of reading, of imagination and of conversation. Dad (who likes the peace and quiet) argues that it is fine, providing it's "kept under control".

the world that Lily inhabits is very different. It's 1996; she's three. If her sister is watching the four-channel television downstairs, she can choose one of her many Disney videos to keep her company on the floor above. Her dad is in the study, writing articles on the word-processor, which he then sends by fax to various places. Her mum is always in contact, using the mobile phone, or she can be bleeped. Dad is waiting for a new computer to be delivered - one with the CD-Rom programmes she's seen advertised, and access to something called the Net. He'd like cable telly. She's heard the rows this has occasioned between her parents, who have sharply opposing views about where all this - this deluge of electronic information - is headed.

Lily's mum is pessimistic. She foresees the obsolescence of books, overtaken by the easy accessibility of music and pictures on computer screens. Pixels will replace dreams; the world of play will be lost to the world of games. When computer nerds trumpet the "replacement of linear thinking" with an anti-authoritarian eclecticism of information, she fears a descent into mental laziness, where the rigours of proper argument are shunned and an "anything goes" philosophy is embraced. Surfing will take over from searching, browsing from learning. The only winners, she believes, will be the great corporations, flogging these opiates to a sensation- hungry but brain-dead people.

Oh, and the pornographers, whose material already suffuses the Net, will do well too. Unstoppable and unpoliceable, their uncensored and violent version of sex and human relations will construct a new morality for the millions of crepuscular inhabitants of small rooms, lit only by flickering 17in screens. We will become a race of intellectually flabby, logically incapable, passive and morally backward beings.

Lily's dad sees the dangers, don't think that he doesn't. The first generation of CD-Roms seem to him to be very crude instruments for learning indeed. The pictures are fun, and the music engaging, but the information is basic and skimpy. The price is also very great, compared with books, which pack much more in, and are far more portable. Nevertheless, as a learning tool for things like basic arithmetic, there are some good programmes out there, and they will get better as people like him demand more sophisticated ones for their kids.

Yes, the Net does contain much drivel and anorakry. But it also allows instant access to vast quantities of information, if you only know how to search. And learning how to search in the multimedia world is probably becoming the most important basic skill that our children need, he argues. Sure, he is only too aware that paedophiles are using the Net to create a degree of spurious normality for their pitiless exploitation of children. But he doesn't buy all the guff about how impossible it is to police cyberspace. Cyberpolice will have to chase criminals and deviants across the Net, just as their uniformed, terrestrial counterparts have to on dry earth - blocking access here, driving them underground there, acting always to make it that bit more difficult to spread filth or racism to any but the already corrupted.

He too thinks that non-linearity is bilge; but also that it won't catch on, because it cannot solve problems. The sheer weight of information will require us all to become incredibly focused on whatever task we are attempting to accomplish. We will establish pathways through the webs that surround our objectives, using analytical rigour to chart our courses. He believes that the idea of semi-robotic machines which filter TV programmes, music and entertainment for us, based on pre-set preferences, is utter rubbish. No one who entrusts their minds to a chip will be able to stay current, let alone innovate.

He doesn't think books will die out. Their pages don't give you headaches, they do not need power-sources, and are an extremely efficient means of storing and retrieving information. Like real (as opposed to cyber) sex, they also possess a tactility humans enjoy (which is why, for instance, real grass will still win out over computer-generated images of the country in spring).

This is the argument that Lily hears. Her world is both very similar to and completely different from the world into which her parents were born. She plays with dolls (even if they are usually based on video characters), reads books, talks about weddings and fights with her sister. True, her sources of information and entertainment are much more diverse, and privately enjoyed, but she takes these in her stride, and uses what she learns socially, to make friends and keep them. Meanwhile - and most important of all - her mother and I watch over her, alive both to the dangers and to the possibilities.

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