CONFESSING ALL IN CYBERSPACE
"We all know the joke about electronic confession," writes Jerzy Kebel, "where the computer asks for some more sins so that it can debug the penance." We do? Maybe we do if we're in Poland, where Kebel contributes to an on-line computer 'zine called Chip and has reviewed a program which could have been written in few other countries. Reflex 1.0 (Pi Tau Soft, Windows and Roman Catholicism, 60 zlotys) is designed to facilitate a rachunek sumienia. This means "self-examination", but in a more literal translation it might also be called the bill of conscience.
But Reflex is anything but a joke; nor is it a fully-featured confessional package. Andrzej Urbanski, its creator, stresses that self-examination is only one of several elements necessary for a successful confession, and is at pains to avoid any suggestion that he is trying to encroach on Church territory. The Windows dialogue box omits "Bless me, father, for I have sinned" and goes straight into the time elapsed since your last confession (the confessor has to fill in a date check-box).
There follows a list of 104 sins, all of which have to be admitted or denied, with a "don't know" option available for while the conscience is searched. Some of the sins are a reminder of how fussy religious observance can be (playing noisy games is unacceptable in Advent as well as Lent, it appears).
Over and over, though, the questionnaire emphasises how a religious doctrine based on individual conscience demands total moral quality management. Thou-shalt-nots are part of the deal, but most of it involves a constant striving towards positively good living. Finding time to talk with your children is on the list, for example, as is taking an interest in what they are reading or watching. In the sophisticated West, by contrast, moral software is something that vets websites so parents can let their children spend hours on-line without paying them any attention.
Reaction in Poland has been mixed. Trade reviewers have had reservations about the program's technical quality - and Urbanski evidently doesn't think that graphic elegance is next to godliness. The price of the CD-ROM, about pounds 10, has also prompted comments, not surprising in a country where the GDP is around pounds 4,000 per capita.
A Dominican priest quoted by the newspaper Zycie declared that self-examination should be conducted at the proper place and time, which are not in front of a computer keyboard. Other clerics expressed reservations about the feature which takes the data from successive confessions and plots them as graphs to show sin trends. One said it trivialised confession, while an other warned that it could be dangerous for people inclined to keep digging up their past.
The priests' cautions suggest that Urbanski has fallen between two stools, or between the two Polands. In turning the PC into a sacrament peripheral, he hopes to engage the attention of the young. During the period of transition from Communism, I interviewed a conservative historian who predicted that the drive to criminalise abortion would awaken a great youth movement devoted to traditional morality. That didn't happen, and young people are more likely to belong to the new Poland, saying yes to consumption and don't know to confession. They are a bitter disappointment to the old Poland, which despised state Socialism for failing to provide the material necessities of life, but at a certain level felt that the absence of luxuries was as it should be. The 104 statements in Reflex are an exact description of how old Poland believes Poles should live.
Computers have a place in both Polands; they are both aspirational luxury goods that are passed off as necessities, and seen as vital tools for those prepared to work hard and rebuild the economy. Reflex is thus more ambitious than it looks. It is an attempt to reconcile the glamour of progress with the moral discipline needed to achieve it, and to bring the material world closer to the spiritual. And in its relentless interrogation of the conscience, it is one of the most deeply interactive programs yet written.
You may find these creatures winsome or you may not, but they hardly look like the cousins of killers, do they? The recently-released Creatures 2 (Mindscape, Windows, pounds 40) looks set to continue the runaway success of the original Creatures, which sold half a million copies and spawned hundreds of websites. Their parent company, CyberLife Technology of Cambridge, has applied the technology behind them in a project, funded by the Ministry of Defence, to develop military aircraft with artificial intelligence instead of human pilots. A press release on the company's website looks forward to a future in which the "skies could be filled with 'species' of people-less, intelligent planes". So the people would remain on the ground below, where the virtual pilots could rain real death down on them.
TechnoTip from the bulletin of Poptel, Technofile's Internet service provider: junk e-mail often advises receivers to send a message in reply if they do not want to get any more mail from the same source. Don't count on it - this may be a ruse to check that the mail is being read, and to confirm the receiver's address.
COMPUTER ARTS AND CRAFTS
Owen Jones: Grammar of Ornament (Direct Imagination, Windows and Macintosh, pounds 50, distributed by Thames & Hudson) is an electronic edition of a design handbook from 1856. Published on CD-ROM in the Portable Document Format widely used to create digital facsimiles, its main attraction is the collection of nearly 2,500 designs, all available for use without royalties. So you too can have a desktop that William Morris would admire, were he not spinning in his grave.
So what's Orange's idea? An increasingly popular way to own a mobile phone is the pay-as-you-go scheme. Instead of committing yourself to a nine- or 12-month service agreement, you simply buy the phone and then pay for calls when you need them. No rental agreement, no credit checks, no minimum airtime per month. The received wisdom in the telecommunications industry is that these schemes come with mobile phones that aren't exactly state- of-the-art. However, Orange's latest handset is tip-top. It has EFR (Enhanced Full Rate, which offers a huge increase in phone call quality, a step towards the quality of conventional calls), and the less practical but highly enjoyable prospect of three simple built- in video games for those no-signal moments. There's the promise of up to 180 minutes' talk time before the battery needs recharging, a clock, a calculator and storage capacity for 90 names. Plus, it's a Nokia, which means unbeatably intuitive operation, and stylish design. Pay-as-you-go schemes (Orange's is called Just Talk) don'thave the big subsidies which come with long rental contracts, but the phone is competitively priced for this market at pounds 179.99. If you're thinking of finally buying a mobile but don't want the hassle of monthly bills, the nk402 has just made the proposition substantially more attractive. Available nationwide. David PhelanReuse content