"The computer's my best friend," claims a 9-year old

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser Apr 1989 (guess) - scanned

"The computer's my best friend," are the last words a parent wants to hear from a nine-year-old.

They certainly shook me up when I overheard Daniel, my youngest, describing his life to a recent visitor. The remark was prompted by the fact that there had been some sort of upset among the kids in our street and Daniel had temporarily fallen out with all the others. It seems that Daniel had made claims for the Macintosh which none of the others had believed.

This incident brought to the surface something which has been worrying me. We've all heard of the obsessive programmer who has few friends - the trade term is 'terminal junkie'. Sitting in front of a totally obedient computer and making it do your bidding is an addictive process. If that's how adults want to spend their lives, that's their business. But it bothers me when I see the same thing in children. Fortunately, Daniel probably averages a couple of hours a week with the computers so I'm not too worried about him becoming an addict.

What I am concerned about, though, is the willingness of major corporations to treat human beings, and children in particular, as guinea pigs. We have a powerful movement dedicated to the abolition of laboratory experiments on animals, yet we have no such movement to protect children from a parallel, if less visible, exploitation.

In particular, I am bothered by a programme which Apple is running in America at the moment. The company is giving out computers for selected children to use at school and at home. Whole classes have computers and other classes in the same school go without. The kids are expected to go through all the grades with the Macintosh as a learning companion. The idea appears to be a grand experiment to see which kids do 'best' - those with computers, or those without.

Ignoring the inevitable jealousies, similar to the goings-on in my street, I can't help wondering what effect the American programme will have on these children's lives. It's a fair bet that they will end up more interested and enriched from their experience with the technology. There is also a significant danger that, after this saturation exposure to computers, they'll end up preferring Macintoshes to their real-life friends. Or should I say ex-friends?

Given that schools measure results in terms of academic achievement, the computers in schools programme will probably show that computerised kids achieve better grades than non-computerised kids. What will the schools do? Buy hundreds of thousands of computers so that every child benefits from the very best education? That would be nice for the computer company that donated the original equipment. All the courseware would be written for that machine, who would want to throw away that investment?

But what about schools who can't afford the technology? What about schools who decide against a computerised education? What about the individuals and families who can't afford the home computer to match the one at school? What will happen to them? When the 'proof' of a superior education is wheeled out, what right-thinking parent would want to deny their child such an opportunity?

We mustn't forget that we are talking about institutions which currently have to account for every trip to the photocopier. In the UK, computers will have to cost as little as a few pounds, unless there are really powerful arguments for their adoption. A good sign for the pro-computer lobby is that computers get cheaper all the time. So by the time the schools and the computer manufacturers have completed their studies, the darned things should only cost a few hundred pounds. And with a falling school population, the number of machines needed will be lower still.

I'm sure that many people at Apple Computer believe that this programme of donating computers to schools is a way of putting something back into the community. "Life is better with a Mac," or so they believe. This is true, but only up to a point. Life is more interesting, more stimulating and school is more fun with a Macintosh.

But real life is something else. Real life is all about human contact. It's not about stimulation by electronic devices which end up claiming more of your affection than your friends.

We've seen how our love affair with the motor car has fragmented society and how it isolates us from others. We've seen how television commits masses of people to silent communion with its flickering images. We've seen millions of youngsters turn to drugs for their rather solitary pleasures. The computer is just another step along this rocky road of isolationism in which people matter less and less.

It doesn't have to be this way. We could recognise the dangers and temper the computerisation of school with 'human studies' lessons.

These could cover basic things like 'meeting people', 'making friends', 'how to disagree without coming to blows', 'how to have a party'... the list is endless. The kids could be dragged away from their computer screens two or three times a week to get a taste of what life without computers might be like. Practical classes could be the highlight of an otherwise sterile week.

Do I exaggerate? I really don't know. Let's just say I'm worried by the way things are going. Like most things taken in moderation, computers can be good for you, but taken to excess they could easily ruin a life. I wonder how long it will be before an irate adult decides to sue a computer company for a lost childhood and an inability to function as a normal human being?