The sledgehammer approach

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Veteran campaigner, Kirkpatrick Sale was given four minutes to explain to an audience at New York's City Hall exactly how he felt about ict. He brought a computer on to the stage. And a sledgehammer. "I smashed the screen with one blow and smashed the keyboard with another," he told the editor of Wired magazine. "It felt wonderful. The sound it made, the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides into the spotlight and the dust that hung in the air." Sale, who is author of The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (pound;39.95 at is one of a growing number of American academics who are worried about the seismic impact the digital revolution is having on families, the workplace and education.

They might rail against the net but, nonetheless, these modern-day Ned Ludds are happy to use it as a soapbox from which to argue their case. Ask Google to search for "Neo-Luddite" and you'll find thousands of sites where the poor computer is held responsible for everything from marital breakdown to the depletion of the ozone layer. Hunt for long enough and you will probably find that it was a pc that did for jfk.

Needless to say, as far as the Neo-Luddites are concerned, computers are as welcome in the classroom as an infestation of nits. It's worth visiting a few of the sites that put educational ict in the dock. Try

where you can read The Computer Delusion, in which Todd Oppenheimer challenges the various arguments usually advanced by the digital evangelists. If you only have a few minutes to spare, read the full-page advertisement that first appeared in The New York Times, paid for by a coalition of various pressure groups who want to alert the public to the dangers of "Techno-Utopianism" ( The headline provides the mantra that visitors to bett should incant as they traipse around Olympia:

"If computers in schools are the answer, are we asking the right question?"

You might not agree with everything the Neo-Luddites say, but you will have to admit that an hour or so browsing their websites offers a healthy antidote to the hype and hullabaloo of the bett Show. You might even decide to cut short your visit to bett and pop along instead to bamp;q to price the sledgehammers.

It isn't only the Neo Luddites who hate ict. According to a survey carried out for the security firm Symantec at the end of last year, our pcs are turning us into a nation of exasperated Victor Meldrews. We don't believe it when we're confronted by spam, online scams, viruses, pop-up advertisements, freezing cursors, inexplicable error messages, unfathomable jargon, help lines that offer no help and systems that crash whenever a deadline's imminent. Nine out of 10 office workers are " irritated and stressed" by their computers, and nearly half of those confess that they've been so annoyed by the pc that they've resorted to "swearing, shouting and violence".

Earlier surveys paint a similarly bizarre picture of the modern office with as many as one in four users suffering from what psychologists have been quick to call technology-related anger (tra). The symptoms of this computer- generated condition are an irresistible urge to punch, kick and verbally abuse the machines that we once fondly believed would make our lives easier.

In the usa they get even rougher. For instance, a user in Lafayette, Colorado, presumably incensed that he'd been told by his pc, yet again, that he had performed an illegal operation, performed the ultimate illegal operation and shot it five times. Suitably mounted, it now hangs on his wall alongside his other hunting trophies. And in San Francisco, urged on by a local radio station, tra sufferers hurled their computers from a bridge on to the paved parking area below. So, for once, they could actually enjoy the experience of watching their pcs crash.

As the industry's whiz kids assembled at the bett show at Olympia, London, next week will quickly point out, it isn't necessarily the computer that is to blame when things go wrong. As one ict expert put it: "The problem can usually be located between the chair and the screen." Most of us simply haven't had the training to deal with even the most elementary glitches, so when we run into difficulties we instantly default to panic mode - we pummel the mouse, cross our fingers, say our prayers and throw a tantrum.

Teachers must be more susceptible to tra than most. Although they've been given the minimum of in-service training, they routinely have to cope with delinquent computers, dodgy peripherals, iffy networks and a bewildering assortment of educational software. What's more, they usually have to do so under the critical gaze of 30 or so pupils, all of whom have their own strongly held views on which buttons to poke when things go wrong.

In fact, teachers must be feeling so fed up with new technology that an enterprising radio station should consider organising an anti-bett show.

Teachers could bring their least reliable hardware to the first floor at Olympia and hurl it from the balconies to the floor below. To make the experience truly cathartic, the ground floor should be packed with the salespersons, advisers, government ministers and evangelists for the digital age who persuaded them that using ict in the classroom was a good idea.

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