System failure

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Put a child in front of a computer screen and they'll start creating a picture or a story.

It's an entirely natural instinct and trying to stop it would be daft. It'd be like going into the garden and telling the spiders to stop spinning webs.

We're creative beasts. We always have been. That's why cave walls were covered in paintings by our prehistoric ancestors. Give someone a blank space, a stick and a bit of colour and they'll make something.

And if those stone-age artists had owned an electronic paint brush and a laptop, archaeologists would be trawling through caves filled with print-outs of bison.

Mind you, there'd also be a letter complaining about the price of ink cartridges. "They wanted a box of flints and two pigs for the yellow ink, and we'd still need green and blue for a view of the landscape. So I told him to stick to painting bison until the brown ran out."

The reason that I'm banging on about creativity is a conversation I had with Susan Chard, the staffroom's resident cynic. It was one of those arguments where you both pretend you're just having a chat, but under the surface it really rankles.

In her view, any type of computer in the classroom is a faddish irritation, or as she puts it a "distraction for the bright and a quiet corner to dump the slow".

"The people I blame are the experts who put these computers into schools," she went on. "You know the sort. Science fiction and no social skills.

They'd be happier reading the technical specifications than watching the movie. You never get anything really creative out of people who mess about with computers."

"That's rubbish," I replied. "My computer at home is like the Renaissance with a plug on the back. I can paint, write, make music, edit movies. I don't have time to keep up with all the creativity that's on offer."

"I can't exactly imagine Michelangelo hanging out with the software set.

They'd be too busy swapping Star Trek stories," came Susan's retort.

What's really annoying is that there is a small grain of truth in this.

There is some connection between computer culture and a certain type of anorak who you'd want to avoid at parties.

And there is still a blokes-in-the-science-lab influence hanging over computer culture. Look down at the computer keyboard and you can see their legacy. Why is there a button saying "CTRL". What does it mean? Even if it bothered to spell out "control", would we be any wiser?

There was a story recently about a university trying to think up ways to get women to apply for a computer programming course, after it had received more than a hundred applications, all from men. The language of files, networks and systems is still taken from a particular "Science Bloke" way of looking at the world. And it's often a way that isn't user-friendly, because deep down these tech-heads don't really want to give up CTRL.

There's no reason why we should allow information technology to be lumped in with science, when in fact it's a creative tool as much as a fountain pen or a paint brush.

At this point the buff enters the argument to defend the advantages of computers in school. But in a way he also confirms many of Susan Chard's attacks. When he opens his computer brochures at lunch time he breathes in as though sampling some kind of exquisite opiate. He loves the technology for its own sake, the more obscure the better.

Maybe it's an image problem. Perhaps we see a computer as a glorified calculator or accounting tool, rather than a souped-up novel-writing machine or a picture maker.

When computers are being advertised, it's matt black macho stuff about speed, power and size that gets promoted. Wouldn't it be an improvement if they boasted instead about being easy enough for five-year-olds to use?

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