Making a virtue of virtual reality

This Just In...

October 18, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

Despite what my geek-hipster friends say, I think you're still allowed to be of two minds about the computer revolution -- excited about its conveniences and possibilities, skeptical of its claims and potential. You're no troglodyte if you use a computer daily but remain otherwise detached. You're not a techno-trog if you think the need for computers in the classroom and the home has been overstated. Computer literacy might be important, but shouldn't literacy itself come first?

Then again, isn't it wonderful how the Internet -- e-mail and all that -- has saved the written word? Wasn't it scheduled to die before the end of the millennium?

Wasn't television going to be the death of reading? Hasn't Bill Gates almost single-handedly saved it from extinction?

Computers save time, right? Why, then, do so many affluent Americans complain about having so little of it?

You see how this is. In fact, you know how this is. You probably experience the glories of the cyber-world regularly -- instant messages, quick access to reference material, e-mail from old friends and new business clients -- but the average person still sees computers, in the main, as tools for processing words, looking up stuff and playing games. Those are not intellectually exotic exercises; you can still do all of those things without a computer. So what's the rush to get every home and classroom wired?

The argument for total wiring is fueled by the forces of capitalism, of course. It's always the hope of capitalism that new technology becomes a cultural phenomenon. (The telephone, the automobile, television, etc.) Necessity is the mother of invention. But we live in the age of virtual reality. Isn't it possible Bill Gates and his brother cyber-capitalists spawned a revolution built on virtual necessity?

Did we really need all this? Was life so bad before the Internet?

Such questions make me sound like a Luddite, but I think you're still allowed to ask them.

The other day, I experienced the fragrant autumn woods of western Maryland, and realized that no amount of cyber-engineering will ever substitute for that personal experience. Nor could photographic scanning or digital duplication substitute for a poet's effort to describe that fragrance as the breezes carried it through the maple trees.

What computers could do, I'm afraid, is what television already has done, in part -- create the idea that nothing need be personally experienced because everything can be virtually experienced.

Why go to a football game if you can watch it on TV?

Why have coffee with a friend if you can chat with her on the PC?

"Sensation has no substitute," wrote Clifford Stoll, best-selling author and celebrated cyber skeptic. His book, "Silicon Snake Oil," offered serious second thoughts on the information superhighway. Tonight at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Stoll will discuss his new book, "High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong In The Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian."

This particular subject -- computers in the classroom -- should be of interest to anyone (educators, politicians, government planners, this columnist) who sees the "digital divide" as a socioeconomic gap that we should make an effort to close. Is closing the digital divide necessary, or only virtually so? Stoll's lecture begins at 6: 30. You'd have to actually go to the central library, 400 Cathedral St., to hear what he has to say. Geek-hipsters and techno-trogs welcome.

Pay here, $1.1 billion

While I'm in a skeptical mood, allow me to repeat for emphasis something from a news story in The Sun: Peter Angelos' law firm claims to have worked 50,000 hours on the state's case against the big tobacco companies. And Angelos believes $1.1 billion for his services is "reasonable."

Leaves you feeling queasy, doesn't it?

Report star sightings

Report your Melanie Griffith-Antonio Banderas sightings right here, darlings. TJI just loves to follow the stars as they shoot through Crabtown. Griffith is here for a leading role in John Waters' latest adventure, "Cecil B. Demented."

Last we heard, her hunk of a husband, star of "The Mask of Zorro" and director of "Crazy in Alabama," was at work on developing an HBO series based on stories of Gabriel Garcia Marques, our favorite novelist. Could Antonio be thinking Patapsco River as a location for "Love In The Time of Cholera"? Watch this space.

It'll curdle your blood

Here's the strangest one we've heard in a while, friends. Russ Burton, a TJI reader in southern Pennsylvania, reports a gallon jug of milk on the Maryland Line exit ramp of Interstate 83. It's on the right side of the ramp, about halfway from the highway to Freeland Road. The jug has been there for at least a month. "I'm sure the contents are putrid by now," says Burton.

But that's only the half of it.

About a week ago, Burton noticed that someone had stopped on the ramp -- not to pick up and dispose of the jug, but to drive a stake into the ground right next to it. On the stake was a little hand-made sign with red letters. The sign said, "NASTY."

And that's all she wrote.

TJIDAN@aol.com is the e-mail address for Dan Rodricks. He can be reached at 410-332-6166, or by post at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

Pub Date: 10/18/99

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