Teachers who want their pupils to extend the hand of friendship across the world will be delighted to receive a piece of junk e-mail currently going the rounds under the title of "PENPAL GREETINGS". Or, at least, they will be until they open it and find that it's the Internet's equivalent of a time bomb.
There is a particularly nasty virus concealed in the code. Before recipients have finished reading about fictitious penpals, the virus will have corrupted every byte of data on the hard disc. If the computer is on a school network, it will waste no time in bringing the whole system to a catastrophic halt, effectively removing IT from the curriculum and ensuring that the IT co-ordinator spends the rest of the term in therapy.
I received the warning in an e-mailed round robin sent on to me by a "friend". I use the inverted commas not because I have any reservations about the chap but because I realise that it isn't exactly the way to describe my relationship with him - and, come to think of it, nor is "relationship" quite the right word either. His first e-mail to me was an angry response to a gratuitous jibe I'd made about Acorn computers in this column. I replied, and since then he has been sending me information - the tip-off about the virus, for example - which he feels is more deserving of publication than cheap jokes at the expense of Acorn users.
I doubt if that is enough to label him a "friend". I certainly haven't followed Polonious' advice on how to sustain a friendship by grappling him to my soul with hoops of steel. We don't exchange Christmas cards - the only address I have for him has an "@" in it. I wouldn't dream of burdening him with my personal problems or asking him to lend me a few quid or inviting him to see my holiday snaps. So even if he's not a friend, he is a valuable contact - and one that I wouldn't have if it were not for the new technology.
There is a lot of twaddle written about the way in which the Internet will lead to virtual communities - I know because I have written lots of it myself. It's a nightmarish vision of a world in which we'll abandon our relationships with real people in favour of new-found cyberchums. It is all baloney, but it is true that, thanks to the modem, there is now no reason why anyone's circle of acquaintances should be circumscribed by geography - or, for that matter, age, gender, or incapacity.
Teachers, for example, are now able to chew the digital cud with colleagues dotted all over the planet. They regularly save each other the bother of re-inventing the wheel by exchanging schemes of work. CampusWorld and RM's Internet for Learning services offer a range of opportunities for teachers to make initial contact with each other. But it is even more important that their pupils become dab hands at e-mail as it will almost certainly replace "snail mail" (the techie term for the traditional postal service).
For example, Sweden Post, aware that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" - has already issued every Swedish citizen with an e-mail address. A spokesperson predicts that snail mail will have gone the way of the dodo "in eight or 10 years from now". Luckily e-mail is genuinely cheap and easy to send. If you'd like to experiment but don't know where to direct your first e-mail, you could always try sending me an idea for a future article. I will read it carefully - providing, of course, that you haven't chosen the title "PENPAL GREETINGS".