Passive aggression

Desktop and laptop computers were once again Big Items on the gift advertising list last Christmas. I hope recipients were pleased with them, but the ads, to be honest, depressed me.

Desktop and laptop computers were once again Big Items on the gift advertising list last Christmas. I hope recipients were pleased with them, but the ads, to be honest, depressed me.

The emphasis was primarily on playing games on the PC, and using it to download and watch or listen to, movies and music - from approved non-piratical sources, of course.

One Hewlett-Packard advertisement, late in the pre-Christmas period, acknowledged that your new PC online might be useful for research and study; but this was a rarity. Even the old standbys, word processing and speadsheeting, seemed forgotten.

It’s not the emphasis on play that annoyed me, but the passivity. In this “multimedia age” marketers seem to be trying to remould the PC and the internet into an analogue of television. It’s something you watch and listen to with little input other than the perfunctory selection of a “channel” or song-track.

An article in Time magazine last year hailed the arrival of the “teleputer” – a multimedia computer reduced to the status of a film projector, record player and family photo album. This was hailed as a significant move in “convergence”. I view it as “submergence” of the unique strengths of the PC and the network.

Games involve some interactivity, but it's a negative kind of interaction. An avenue for worldwide sharing of ideas is transformed into a battlefield.

At least we, the people and the government, are starting to realise the necessity for a broadband communications infrastructure.

Schools are at the forefront, and with a bit of positive thinking, broadband should make the communication between teacher and pupil, particularly the remote pupil, more two-way. It’s been shown in the business and academic environment that discussion mediated through a network is surprisingly productive, even when you’re in the same room, because no one’s ideas are crowded out and status games are less effective. In the educational field, interactivity should mean no child will be stuck in the back row trying to grab the teacher’s attention. Education can become less “chalk and talk” and more dialogue-oriented – if that’s the way teachers want it.

With e-government, while the opportunity to send submissions to select committees electronically opened up a little measure of e-democracy, there has been little long-term thought as to how electronic networks might basically change the structure of government and its relationship with the citizen, e-government unit head Brendan Boyle told Computerworld last year.

Philosopher John Ralston Saul noted that “the individual has no large organised mechanism [apart from government] that he can call his own. Government is the only … mechanism that makes possible that level of shared disinterest known as the public good.”

The internet, in a variety of forms, from newsgroups and mailing lists to blogs, has potentially given the individual such a mechanism – a mechanism that can be dovetailed into government processes.

Napster and its successors' allowance for “peer-to-peer” trading of music and other files, of which businesses claim ownership, has led to a deep debate on what is good for the public and how businesses think the public should be "good". The Law Commission has become involved in the question of how far “rights management systems” should be allowed to intrude on the individual’s right to keep his/her information and actions private and share them without business's knowledge.

But at the same time “the masses” are being steadily marketed into a newspaper and television model. This is the antithesis of peer-to-peer. One source, with the authority to speak, or something to sell, provides “content”, which we consume passively. The phrase “mouse potato” has entered the language.

Even the abbreviations we use in e-commerce label us. If you’re not a business, you’re a “consumer”. Perhaps we should use the word “individual” more and talk of B2I – which encourages provision for I2B. And for the individual private computer user? Resist the dumbing-down. Do something creative, dare I suggest disruptive (of established ideas) with your PC and show the results to the world. More important, participate in local and international discussion of the changes in laws and attitudes that will be needed for digital technology to continue breaking down barriers.

Don’t be a mouse potato.

Bell is a Wellington-based reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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