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Hang Ups

Reality isn't what it used to be. In earlier centuries, life might have been brutish and short, but at least we knew where we stood - usually in a puddle of mud foraging for roots or wrestling with something red in tooth and claw that wanted us for its breakfast.

We rarely ventured far from our homes, lived close to nature, in tune with the seasons, ate what we'd hunted and had no dealings with people other than those we met face to face. Or F2F, as the Internet in-crowd laughingly call this quaintly old-fashioned way of communicating.

The Internet enables us to "talk" to total strangers without ever having to go to the trouble of meeting them, or the embarrassment of making eye-contact.

This would make no sense to our forebears, but then nothing in our brave new world would. The seasons are irrelevant to most of us who spend our lives indoors with the central heating on. There's hardly any need to hunt for our food if there's a Sainsbury's nearby. We don't actually live anywhere in particular - not in the sense that countless generations before us did. No sooner have we planted a cherry tree in our front gardens than we've asked the estate agent to plant a "for sale" sign next to it. We rush off to some other part of the country. It's no big deal - anywhere that has central heating and a Sainsbury's is much the same as anywhere else.

Before long, however, the only address that will matter will have a "@" in it. We'll be citizens, not of a town or a nation but of cyberspace.

Our bemused ancestors would be equally confused about what people did with their days. A growing number of people - although they have different job-descriptions - earn their daily bread in exactly the same way. They sit in front of a computer screen. And after a hard day twiddling the mouse, they return home - to sit in front of a television screen.

Those of us with home computers can also escape many of the limitations posed by the real world. Simulations enable us to do anything from digging a digital garden without hurting our backs to invading a pixelated Poland without ever having to step outside the hypnotic glow of the monitor.

There was a time when those sad souls who lost touch with reality in this way were doomed to lead lonely and isolated lives. Now, as denizens of cyberspace, they belong to the biggest, most gung-ho community that has ever existed on the planet.

The hype merchants euphorically describe it as the next and most exciting phase in human evolution. It will be nothing less, one of them claims, than a "a tool kit for reconfiguring consciousness".

Of course, it's a load of old poppycock, but American academic Mark Slouka takes it seriously - simply because so many other people seem so ready to accept it as a new gospel for a new age.

His War of the Worlds (Abacus, Pounds 9.99) is an impassioned appeal for a return to common sense and to the old values. He's not opposed to computers, or the Internet but to how we are being urged to use the new technology to escape from reality.

Most adults will be immune to the worst of the codswallop written about the virtual community (an oxymoron, Slouka insists) but children are far more impressionable. They are at the mercy not only of the woolly thinking that characterises so much of the rhetoric that has been inspired by the information superhighway, but of an IT industry which has (according to Slouka) a projected turnover of $3.5 trillion, and thus a vested interest in promoting the idea that cyberspace is an irresistible alternative to ye olde reality.

Teachers should feel under the deepest obligation to explain to children just how dangerously misguided this is. F2F, of course.

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