Hang ups

28th November 1997 at 00:00
I have been to parties where I've rubbed shoulders with people who have appeared on television - but, remarkably, on this occasion, the guests had been on programmes other than Crimewatch.

I won't name any of the assembled movers and shakers, not because I am averse to name-dropping, but because they wouldn't thank me for letting it be known that they end up in the sort of party to which yours truly had been invited.

The only way I can explain my unlikely presence there is to assume that a computer somewhere made a cock-up with the guest list. Possibly, an invitation should have gone to the eminent left-wing playwright, Arnold Wesker, and another to the controversial DJ, Chris Evans. But the mail merge software must have merged more than it should have merged.

As a consequence an embossed card winged its way to Arnold Evans. I suppose somewhere in that glittering throng, although we never met, was an equally bemused Chris Wesker.

In the initial stages, I was worried that the small talk might cause me some embarrassment. But I soon discovered the secret of how to sustain a conversation with people who have egos that are even bigger than their bank balances. Ask them questions about themselves - the one subject which they find irresistibly fascinating.

It wasn't long before I became aware of their enormous capacity for self-congratulatory monologue. But I eventually discovered that they are also prepared to listen.

Not to me, of course. But to any expert who knows something that they really want to know. I asked several captains of industry (all male, perhaps, I should add) whether computers helped them in their work. Each looked at me blankly.

The secretary, they remembered, had a word processor thingy which she swore by - and the computer wallahs on the pay-roll were dab hands. But the captains regarded their own time as far too precious to waste at a personal computer.

How important was the Internet to them in their work? They are far too busy for such distractions. They don't mess around with those incomprehensible URLs or the indiscriminate lists spewed out by a search engine. If they want information - whether it's about world trade or widgets or Wolverhampton - they turn, not to machines, but to people: they ask someone who knows to talk to them about the subject.

Tony Blair (who wasn't at the party) adopts the same approach. When he needed information on how best to wire up schools in a National Grid for Learning, he didn't surf the Net but sensibly summoned Bill Gates (who wasn't at the party either) to join him for a cosy tete-a-tete at Number Ten.

Face to face, eyeball to eyeball. It's the quickest, cheapest, most natural, and certainly the most pleasant way of learning. It has been the basis of pedagogy since the Year Dot - a point worth remembering every time some computer-crazy educationist waxes lyrical about the information superhighway.

If schools didn't exist, some genius, who would be hailed as even greater than Bill Gates, would have to invent them. They'd be equipped not with the latest technology, but with the most effective educational machine yet devised - a staff room of teachers.

Not wanting to blow my cover, those are not exactly the words I chose to express my point of view to the captains of industry. Instead I assured them that "the Internet can't revolutionise education", which is what Chris Evans told The Sunday Times. And added - quoting Arnold Wesker - that we certainly don't need "chips with everything". I hope Chris Wesker was able to display similar sang-froid.

u arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk

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