Home Education Magazine
September-October 1997 - Columns
Talk About Learning - Earl Gary Stevens
This Internet Thing
Last Sunday at the dinner table Nana wondered aloud if the Internet is a good idea. She wasn't exactly sure what the Internet is, but she thought she remembered reading something unpleasant about it in her morning newspaper. "What is this Internet thing I keep hearing about?" she asked. I didn't know how to answer her.
As in so much of life, what you get from the Internet is what you bring to it. It is simultaneously the most revolutionary tool for communications and for learning since the Gutenberg Press, a fascinating method for wasting time, and a new way for people to disrupt each other's lives. Certainly it is here to stay, and it will change our society in ways that we haven't yet begun to fathom.
We told Nana where we had been in the Internet recently and what we had used it for. Over the past few days we used it to find information about home improvement, browse through collections of Japanese paintings, read articles in the Bombay Afternoon Despatch, monitor panoramic images of the Mars landing, peek from a satellite at a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, attend a lecture on the stock market, listen to a jazz broadcast from a radio station in Louisiana, send and receive mail, and speak casually with friends and acquaintances around the world.
Once all the recorded knowledge of humankind was laboriously printed by hand and kept under lock and key in monasteries and universities; now the libraries of the world are available at the click of a mouse. The Gutenberg Press made information available to the masses of people; now the Internet makes information available immediately, on demand, to anyone anywhere as long as a computer connection can exist. The information will never be free of charge, but neither are books, and given the steady drop in computer prices and cheap access to Internet providers it is the knowledge and communications bargain of the millennium.
The World Wide Web is the most visible and popular part of the Internet. I was hooked the very first time I came to it with some tomato questions and found enough tomato answers to become the neighborhood expert. This included "Tomato Web Online," tomato tips from state tomato councils, tomato research, cures for tomato diseases, tomato poetry, tomato business management, the history of tomatoes, tomato photographs, tomato contests, and baskets full of articles on how to farm them, can them, dry them, and cook them. I also found "The Web Page of the Killer Tomatoes" and a video clip about "Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber." Something for everyone.
But apart from the access it provides to information and resources, I am struck by the social ramifications of the Internet, the way people use it to share interests, discuss ideas, meet people, and stay in close touch with far flung friends and family members. Anyone who knows how to type can participate. I remember Jamie being amazed and gratified to find that in his online discussions in a computer forum his opinions carried as much weight as any adult's, and he was granted attention directly in proportion to the usefulness of his ideas. He learned how to type, compose, and spell almost overnight in his passion to master this tool. Written words are the coin of the online realm, and we all like to make a good impression when we go out in society.
As Nana has noticed in her morning paper, the news about online relationships is not all positive, but I think that with the use of some common sense the Internet is probably safer than many of the other places in which people meet each other. There are thousands of sites online where teenagers and college students go to talk about special interests or simply to socialize and make friends with kindred spirits from all over the world. Younger kids can find people to talk with also, but they need guidance and should not be left to wander freely, just as one would not allow a child to roam in any unfamiliar place filled with millions of inhabitants.
I don't mean to minimize the amount of trash on the Internet or the possibility of encountering people who are less than desirable, and I certainly wouldn't suggest that being online is at all necessary for a full and rich life. I don't think it necessary for small children to even own computers. There is plenty of time to become acquainted with the digital world, and it is better for younger kids to play outdoors with tangible things than to surf the Web.
Meanwhile the rest of us may need to protect ourselves from various forms of online addiction. Being on the Internet is better for the brain than watching television, if only because it requires some amount of thought and participation, but neither is a substitute for real life. Yet I know there are people who live on the Internet and find themselves losing touch with everything else. I can understand how that happens. After making a cup of tea on a cold night in January I can click the mouse and begin browsing through the largest, most colorful library/market place/coffee house in the world. It sure beats shoveling snow.
The Internet may be awash with the superficial and the trivial, and it may have its bad neighborhoods, but it is the only place I know where minds can interact freely and instantaneously with each other across great distances in an environment that is blind to age, sex, color, economic and social class, and national identity. That is exciting to me and to the people I have met online in London, Madrid, Leningrad, Bombay and many other places all over the world. I'm not sure if Nana went home more enlightened about the Internet, and I still don't know if she thinks it's a good idea. However we feel about it, there is no turning back. The world has changed again, and there is much to learn.
© 1997, Earl Gary Stevens. State and local nonprofit volunteer-based support organizations may reprint this article for their members without asking for permission. As a favor, please send a copy to me at 25 Belmeade Road, Portland, Maine 04101.
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