Bubble bursting

11th February 2000 at 00:00
I've seen the future - and it doesn't work terribly well. It seems bedevilled by an alarming assortment of glitches and gremlins. For the sake of any readers who have been visiting another planet for the last 18 months, the future is to be found in the Millennium Dome, at Greenwich - a remarkable construction which has taken on the unmistakable appearance of a giant white elephant.

Although the Dome's 14 disappointing zones are littered with new technology and wall-papered with platitudes and clever-dickery, I couldn't find any acknowledgement of the one principle which applies to all aspects of ICT: if anything can go wrong, it will, and usually at the moment when it's most likely to cause maximum embarrassment.

For example, the designers were tempting fate when they decided that the centrepiece of the Learning Zone should be an enchanted orchard where visitors could try out one of 50 mirrored cubes equipped with computer screens which seemed to grow out of the synthetic sward. I watched a leaf flutter down my screen. I rolled my rollerball religiously, but try as I might, I couldn't make anything happen.

I won't list the many other pieces of equipment - from video games to escalators - that were on the blink that day. I didn't really mind and "The Millennium Experience" wouldn't have felt so reassuringly British if everything had gone without a hitch. Indeed, it's fitting that, in the Body Zone, the figure representing the brai is Tommy Cooper - the magician whose tricks never quite worked.

Of course, by now the organisers will have employed an army of techies andor exorcists to sort out the glitches. There is, however, a more fundamental problem which will be harder to fix. The Millennium Experience is oddly old-fashioned. The designers have failed to make full use of multimedia, and the latest ICT. There are computer displays in most zones, but in the main all that visitors can do is thump a button to light up a screen. Even the Play Zone has nothing to offer that bears serious comparison to the gee-wizardry of the video games in any high street arcade - or most kids' bedrooms.

It's odd, too, that BT devoted its zone to vacuous undergraduate ramblings about the nature of talk, when it is uniquely placed to offer some pertinent insights into how the revolution in telecoms - and especially the Net - is about to change the way we live. It is already having an impact in some classrooms as visitors to the Dome will discover at the suite of VDUs sponsored by Tesco. Here they can explore a vast anthology of written work which pupils throughout the UK have been able to post on the world's biggest school notice board - the SchoolNet2000 website. It's fascinating to browse through the hundreds of essays in which pupils daydream about how they hope the world will change over the coming years. Interestingly, they don't even consider that things won't work

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