The digital diet

17th June 2005 at 01:00
A Californian professor has calculated that a gigbayte of data is equivalent to one truckload of typed pages. So I reckon all the files that I have lovingly squirreled away over the years on hard disks, memory sticks, Zips, CDs and floppies would create a tailback of Eddie Stobarts from Junction 6 to Junction 4 on the M25. If you find that hard to imagine, try driving from South Wales to London on a weekday.

I have saved every digital photo I've ever taken including the 287 shots of the Christmas tree snapped on the day I got my Canon Ixus. It goes without saying that, as soon as the technology made it possible, I transferred my entire collection of CDs and vinyl to the hard disk. Why? For no better reason than I could.

And I'm a sucker for the freeware that arrives Cellotaped on computer mags or which you can summon by the truckload if you type "free software download" into Google. So my hard disk is a graveyard for iffy applications which either don't quite work, or work perfectly except I can't think of any work for them to do.

Then there are all those mysterious files with indecipherable names which, like the ominous packages lurking at the back of the deep freeze, I'm reluctant to open for fear of what I might find inside.

I am what the experts describe as "digitally obese". Their recommended diet is painful but simple: decide which files you can't live without - and consign everything else to the trashcan. What I'd be left with, I suspect, wouldn't require a convoy of trucks. It would fit comfortably into the glove compartment of a Fiat Uno.

One application is certain to survive the purge. If you don't have it on your desktop, it can only be because you've never seen it in action, or you're certifiably mad. The amazing Skype (which can be downloaded free from effectively turns your computer in a telephone. The FAQs say that for best results you should hook a microphone headset to your computer but I find that it works perfectly on my iMac using the built-in mic and speakers. True, the sound quality isn't what you'd expect from a mobile phone or a bog-standard landline - it's infinitely better. Your caller's digitised voice is processed in just the same way as any other audio file so you can whack up the volume until it sounds as if the caller is actually there in the room with you. Better still, it really is cheap.

For a piddling 1.1p a minute, at any time of day, you can call anywhere in the UK, northern Europe, Australia, Canada and most of the USA.

But the technology really comes into its own when Skypers bypass the telephone network and call up each other's computers. The service is free.

That's right - that's not a misprint - it doesn't cost a bean. What's more you can set up conference calls with up to five other users. You can incorporate a video link-up. And, while you speak, you can simultaneously use the connection to exchange text messages, jpegs, MP3s or any other sort of file. Come to think of it, downloads during Skype conversations account for quite a few of the useless gigabytes that I must get round to dumping.

I must also remember to delete the folder in which I've been filing away those worrying articles, surveys and reports which spell out the damage that video games can do to young minds. The Jeremiahs, it seems, have got it wrong. Everything Bad Is Good For You (, pound;7) is a bestseller that has taken America by storm. In it, Steven Johnson argues that video games (along with popular TV drama and reality shows) actually make kids smarter. It isn't the content that matters but the fact that games challenge players to concentrate over extended periods and to exercise "ze little grey cells", as Hercule Poirot would say. It does wonders for their decision-making, abstract reasoning, problem solving and other high-level skills of the sort which should warm the cockles of every educationist's heart.

Of course, in much the same way as Tiger Woods would be underwhelmed by the prospect of a round of crazy golf, children who are stretched and stimulated by video games don't find much to excite them in the classroom - even if their teacher is sometimes willing to cavort bravely in front of a whiteboard.

It's obvious that if school managers want to create an intellectually challenging environment, they must look for inspiration to Brighton's Palace Pier or Blackpool's Golden Mile. A dozen arcade machines per classroom should do the trick. Teachers needn't worry about being surplus to requirements. Someone will be needed for the vital work of handing out stacks of 10 pence pieces and wiping down the screens with a damp cloth.

Unfortunately, there is a downside. I have on my hard disk a truckload of worrying articles which insist that the hours children devote to playing computer games - which exercise their brains but precious little else - is time that in the old days they would have spent burning off excess calories. Their IQ might be on the increase, but so is their weight. And clinical obesity, sadly, isn't nearly as easy to cure as its digital equivalent.

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