Hand Ups

Arnold Evans

Cafe 2001, the latest amenity at the Richard Huish Sixth Form College in Taunton, is named in honour of 2001: A Space Odyssey the classic penned by the school's most famous Old Boy, Arthur C Clarke. In this "cyber cafe", it isn't only the coffee that's instant so too is access to the fabled Internet.

As a rule, schools are obliged to subscribe to a commercial service provider who, in turn, links them to the Internet. But the Richard Huish with help from Research Machines has established its very own Point of Presence (PoP) on the Internet. That means that it is in effect its own service provider. Students are able to spend all day on 10 dedicated workstations without running up hefty charges; the college can offer an Internet gateway to neighbouring schools and furnish distance learners with sophisticated levels of support.

It's not surprising, then, that staff and students are cock-a-hoop. But before they become too jubilant about the delights of the new technology, perhaps they should take a break from the VDUs and re-read the old boy's magnum opus. They'd be reminded that HAL 9000, the seemingly benevolent computer that controlled life on the USS Discovery, caused the crew members a few major headaches and finally killed them off.

I'm not implying that Research Machines, with its commendable record of quality support for education, has singled out the cream of Taunton's youth for imminent demise it simply wouldn't be good PR. But I do want to remind staff at the college that allowing pupils unlimited time on-line can result in unforeseeable horrors. Indeed, if they were to believe the stories in this month's newspapers, children and the Internet seem to go together like peaches and creosote.

There is, for instance,the disturbing story of a 13-year-old Kentucky girl who used the Internet to participate in her own dangerous version of Blind Date. So successfully was she chatted up by one virtual Romeo, that she ran away from home to live with him.

According to The Daily Telegraph, children can use the Internet to access anything from detailed advice on committing suicide to Anarchy 'n' Explosives an electronic compendium of tips on how to concoct TNT, nitro-glycerine and dynamite. Then, of course, there is the revelation that "nice, bright" London public schoolboys are alleged to have carried out a major credit-card fraud using techniques they learnt from you've guessed it the Internet. Detective Inspector Ron Laverick, who is leading the investigation, is certain that the handy hints were written by a criminal. English teachers should note how he arrives at this conclusion: "You can tell by the type of phrasing and advice. Also his grammar and spelling were awful." In future, when they receive a sloppy piece of writing, teachers should forget the red pen, and alert Nick Ross on Crimewatch UK.

The inspector makes no bones of his distaste for new technology. "The Internet," he says, "is a horrible monster that's been created and we can't do anything about it. It's out of control." He's in good company. In the short story, Dial F for Frankenstein, Taunton's most illustrious son says much the same thing. Writing in 1963, long before the Internet, he imagines a world-wide web of computers linked by telephones. Such a monster, he argues, would be out of our control and capable of initiating endless mayhem.

Those on the staff at the Richard Huish who find time to read this short yarn, or indeed the horror stories in the newspapers, might start thinking they'd do well to rid themselves of Cafe 2001 before it's too late. Those who want to know how, could always access Anarchy 'n' Explosives.

For more details of Cafe 2001: Research Machines, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 4SE. Tel: 01235 826000

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