System failure

4th November 2005 at 00:00
I'm going to tell you something really important. It's something I wanted to mention that I've discovered about using computers...

I was just about to get to the point, when there was a knock on the door and a head appeared around the corner.

It was Margaret Vaughan, the new Year 3 class teacher. She seems to think that communications technology means she has to talk about her laptop the whole time.

It was four o'clock and, apart from a couple of stragglers, all the children had gone home. But Margaret was still tapping away at her laptop, luxuriating in the turbo-charged acceleration of the broadband network.

"Have you seen this?" she said, leaning around the corner.

"I was just going to finish writing something," I said, still trying to look at the screen, hoping to ignore her.

"Come and have a look. It's as cool as a polar bear's beer fridge," she said.

There wasn't going to be much choice, so I walked through to the next-door classroom. Margaret was pointing to the screen as though she'd just seen electricity working for the first time.

"It's these Widgets. It's how computers were always meant to be," she said, her voice choked with emotion. Well, in fact there was some evidence of her voice being choked by simultaneously ingesting cake and vending machine coffee, but there was certainly emotion there as well.

"I just touch this button and it happens."

"What happens?" I wanted to get back to finish what I was going to tell you.

"Radio 4. Or a live webcam of Venice. Or satellite maps. Or the nutrients in food."

She had found the Widgets software on the Apple we use to drive the interactive whiteboard. With broadband, it gives you a long list of appallingly addictive distractions.

You just push one of the icons that lie like a honeycomb of distractions on the screen, to plug directly in to an information source. This could be a radio station, how much you should weigh for your height, temperatures around the world, phases of the moon or weight and volume conversion calculators.

And that's just scratching the surface. Scanning the page where you can download these Widgets, I can see at least a thousand services - all free, all offering live information.

"Look, I just hit this and it's the Grand Canal. You can see night falling over the Ponte di Rialto. And I'm playing Radio 3 in the background. I know I've got so much to do, but I can't stop."

I shook my head in despair. This was a bad case of broadband brain-dumping.

She could be in there for hours.

I made my excuses and slipped back into my own classroom and returned to my desk. And once again I hunched over the keyboard. I had something to tell you.

I paused for a moment. Could you really see the night falling in Venice? What time was it there? I could check it on the international clock Widget.

It was only a couple of clicks on the dashboard.

In fact, to make sure I didn't waste time, I clicked on the egg-timer Widget, so that I could monitor how long it was taking me. There was a notepad as well, so that I could lay out a schedule for finishing.

I stopped. I needed to write down this important message, but I was as bad as that novel about the man who could never get past the beginning of the story. Tristram Shandy. But who wrote it again? I decided to check Google, but I didn't want to let the time slip, so I got that groovy online clock on the screen as a reminder.

It was by Laurence Sterne, of course. And it's been made as a film. I wondered if it had been released in the States yet? How would they ever film a book about never getting started? I wonder if displacement activities are a recognised medical condition?

Hold on, I was going to warn you about something... oh yes, how computers can steal your time. And how easy it is to get distracted when you're trying to work. Not sure I've got time now.

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