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Home > Culture and Society

Oh, You Will Fool... The Children of the Digital Revolution

5 May 2006

You'd have to be a bit dense to accept every claim about technology at face value. If you did, you'd be waiting in vain for 'Lord of the Rings' to come out on 12-inch laserdisc and cooking all your meals on a Breville sandwich toaster - possibly while chatting with your mum on an Amstrad video phone. Although all of this might prove a bit problematic, considering you'd be living in a cardboard box after investing heavily in boo.com.

Yup, the sheer volume of hype that tends to accompany techno-bollocks surely means we should show a little scepticism when being told how profoundly technology will affect our lives.

Except we don't. Take the hoo-hah that surrounded the publication this week of a study of children's media choices, in particular 'new' media, carried out for communications regulator Ofcom. The results weren't actually that surprising: among the findings were that 87 per cent of 12 to 15-year-old girls own a mobile phone, compared with 77 per cent of boys, suggesting that on average teenage girls spend more time yapping on the phone or sending text messages than boys. Boys meanwhile spend more time playing computer games.

Pretty shocking stuff, we're sure you'll agree. However, it didn't stop the papers going mad about the story. The Guardian in particular managed to read far more into the survey than it actually merited, even finding a misguided quasi-liberal angle: that girls are outperforming boys in 'the digital revolution'.

In a full-page article, it opined: 'They mature more quickly, are said to be more responsible and do better at school. Now media-savvy girls are putting another one over the boys by leading the digital communications revolution.'

The pointless triumphalism of this is bad enough (imagine 'Men put another one over women by retaining traditional dominance in workplace') but it's also a rather hollow victory for the girls. The actual claim is that teenage girls are more likely to have a mobile phone, use the Internet, listen to the radio and read newspapers or magazines. None of these achievements are particularly impressive in themselves. If teenage girls are regular listeners of the Today programme and readers of the Economist, then we've probably got the most educated and aware generation of young women in history. If they're listening to Chris Moyles and reading about the adventures of Chantelle in Heat, then it's not quite so impressive.

As is often the case, the article took the line that using the
Internet is an inherently good thing, at least in terms of joining the brave new cyber world. This is based on a massive misconception about the Internet: being able to use the Internet is a vital skill, one that must be learned, and one which is vital to your survival in the cyber-society of the future. It's a theme that was picked up not so long ago by the government, which warned of a society split into information 'haves' and 'have nots' - a dubious concept that seems to have fuelled New Labour's obsession with computers in schools. This whole view is so out of kilter with reality it's breathtaking. For a start, using the Internet requires about as much skill as picking your nose. Double click on the search engine icon, type in what you're looking for and there you go: enough porn to wank yourself into unconsciousness a million times over.

The other misconception about the Internet is that it contains masses of useful information. It does, but it also contains far more stuff that is just dodgy. Although people are becoming a bit more sceptical about the Internet in general, patients are still turning up at doctors' surgeries with screes of ill-informed information about their real or imagined illnesses. Even Wikipedia, a well-moderated site and obvious choice when looking for factual information, finds it hard to stave off mountains of rubbish from believers in everything from UFOs to creation science.

The problem seems to be that *everyone* who should know better is taking the 'digital communications revolution' far too seriously. Step forward one Tessa Jowell, who commented: 'I do not exaggerate when I say that media literacy in its widest sense is as important to our development as was universal literacy in the 19th century.'

No - universal literacy enabled people to participate in the world around them, to read books, write letters, read the signs in shops. Media literacy (whatever that may mean) is just being able to access different types of media. In terms of the media being a 'passport to knowledge', as Jowell called it, the best way to accrue knowledge is to read a good newspaper, watch an unbiased news programme or read a book. Unless, of course, you define 'knowledge' as knowing the results of an online poll of whether Keira Knightley is 'hotter' than Natalie Portman.

Not wishing to be left out, the BBC recently announced that it would be wholeheartedly embracing the digital revolution, i.e. creating more pointless 'content' for its sprawling website and making programmes for mobile phones. Sorry, but if the BBC bothered to look at companies who got in on the 'digital revolution' a lot earlier, they'd realise that these companies have been struggling for years to find ways to make websites anywhere near as successful as television, which just happens to be the BBC's 'core' activity. They might also have noticed that the only genuinely successful content for mobiles is still ringtones, Michelle Marsh wallpaper and animations that are either just inane or pornographic.

It's ironic really, that the information revolution is supposed to make us all smarter, but we're still prepared to believe any old bollocks as long as it includes the word 'digital'. Christ, doesn't anyone remember the Internet-enabled fridge?

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