Babes in Netland

For something that's really a transport medium, the Internet gets a lot of attention as an independent entity of some sort. For a pipeline, its e-heart of darkness—and its sunny side, too—seems remarkably human at times. No doubt the personification of this digital pipe is merely a reflection of its content; someone, not something, is making the decisions that determine whether the Internet contributes to knowledge and reason, or furthers their decay.

When my daughter was four, she sometimes sat on my lap while I typed on the computer's keyboard. Naturally, this observation phase didn't last; she wanted to do her own typing. The result—by the time she entered the halls of academia the following year—was a rather respectable typing speed. Later, when Windows became more common on personal computers, she would spend time playing with the little Paint program, experimenting with increasingly complex shapes and patterns. Yet a bit further along, she began to learn the ins and outs of PowerPoint. This nonrecreational computing was due, mostly, to the fact that Dad's machine didn't have any games on it; it was used for Very Important Things, and Dad was never really big on games anyway.

Somewhere within the elementary-school years, she wound up with a computer that had been gathering dust in a friend's basement; it wasn't the latest or greatest, but it was her own. This meant not only 100% availability, but the freedom to install software that didn't fit well in Dad's Very Important Things environment. Math Blaster was added, and games such as Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? began to receive greater attention. Of course, regular schoolwork figured into the learning process, too. It presented not only the opportunity to put her accumulated knowledge to good use on classroom assignments, but opened the door to the all-important process of research. As you might expect, this is where the Internet began to rear its multifaceted head.

Fast-forward to her final year of high school. Like television, cell phones, and computers, the Internet has long since been folded into the hum of ordinary day-to-day life, and the sticky strands of the Web are attached in innumerable places, for purposes as diverse as the minds in which they're incubated. Like so many her age, my daughter spends an inordinate amount of time connected to the Internet; there are Web sites to explore, MySpace pages to maintain, and instant messages to send. There's music, and video of course. Her digital photos require time; they don't organize themselves.

But there's still schoolwork, too, and she takes it seriously, as she always has. She's the one who ultimately decides what's worth her time, and what isn't, and how things are prioritized; no one is looking over her shoulder 24/7. If she gets an A—and there have been a lot of those—it's because she earned it; if the grade is disappointing, she knows how that happened, too. It doesn't seem all that long since she sat on my lap and pressed those first keys, but then, an accurate sense of time has never been one of my hallmarks. I'd like to think those early years had more than just a cursory effect on the present; I'd like to think that the dearth of computer games and TV during her formative years resulted in more important knowledge, and the reasoning skills to put that knowledge to practical use. I know an overly restrictive diet is more likely to result in malnutrition than enlightenment; there has to be a balance. But the stacks of books on her bedroom floor, when she was little, seem to have provided a good substitute for endless hours of television, and all that messing around with things like PowerPoint doesn't appear to have damaged her mind to any significant degree. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but at this point, it seems she's still able to surf the Web, and send text messages to her friends. But yeah, I know. It ain't over yet.


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