Matthew Sweet on why computer geeks look set to take over academia
Eight o'clock in the evening in the Garden Quad computer room at St John's College, Oxford: the blinds are drawn, and the air is filled with the evening chorus of PC keyboards, clicking like a nursing home full of poorly fitted dentures. Every terminal is occupied by red-eyed students compiling dissertation footnotes, perfecting their Minesweeper technique and making e-mailed contributions to online debates on whether Captain Picard is harder than Commander Sisko. (It's Sisko, obviously.)

Identifiable by their spinal curvature, KFC complexions and Metallica T-shirts, the Virtual Student represents the latest unkind twist of human taxonomy. Currently evolving in university computer centres all over the country, he - and it is usually he - surfs by night, taking to the computer room to spend the evening engaged in gory shoot 'em ups with like-minded Netheads in Vancouver or enthusiastically bookmarking nudie images. And, thanks to outfits like Gradnet (UK), it's even possible for him to browse catalogues of undergraduate essays to buy and plagiarise.With most British universities offering free on-campus access to the Internet, and many providing 24-hour computing facilities, the perfect environment has been created for academe's equivalent of the blind cave-fish.

Hal Jensen, 25, a third-year student, is one of St John's mistrustful neo-Luddites. "The computer room is full of people desperate to appear to be very busy and in contact with lots of other people all over the world." His visits are infrequent: "I'm a bit put off by the stagnant smell," he explains. "It's something organic - if you spend too long in this room you start seeping with it. It must be due to the lack of fresh air."

Information Technology isn't exactly glamorous. But, despite rumblings of resistance, online education is widely regarded as the shape of things to come. At University College, Suffolk, plans are being made for the launch of the first "televersity", in which tutorials by e-mail and video-conferencing would form the backbone of degree courses. Vice- principal Professor David Muller envisions something community-based, in which rural students would attend village "infotechnology workshops" or work from home via the Net. However, the potentially anti-social effects are being taken seriously: "I don't like the idea of us all sitting in cellars and never seeing the light of day." It would, he argues, be bad for students and for business: "Employers want people with high levels of interpersonal skill as well as the ability to synthesise information."

These anxieties have achampion in Clifford Stoll, the author of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. Stoll, who is a prominent critic of electronic incursions on to American campuses, warns students that "the time you spend online is time that you're not developing better relationships with people".

Stoll foresees the transformation of higher education into "a cubicle- directed electronic experience". It's the kind of cultural speculation which academics adore. On the other side of the argument sits the University of California's Mark Poster, who contends that e-mail users "invent themselves in the process of exchanging signs", and Sadie Plant, a research fellow at the University of Warwick, who sees it as a tool of liberation from normative gender roles.

But in British universities, e-mail is hardly a crucible of the playful, postmodern, multiple self: here, most of the student e-mail addicts wouldn't recognise deconstructionist jouissance if it came through the wormhole on Deep Space Nine.

Dr Phil Torr, a tutor in Oxford University's robotics group, is keen to point out that the Internet can encourage as well as deter face-to- face contact. Although he's seen evidence of e-mail addiction in his department, Torr is confident that these behaviour patterns are limited to a minority of computer geeks: "There are always a few people who don't want to speak to each other.

"There are a couple of people here who are that way inclined, but a few years ago they would have been playing with their Spectrum or be stuck in the potting shed."

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