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Malling the Kids

Back in the dim, dark ages of the early '90s, American parents experienced an upwelling of concern about the tendency of their children to hang out at shopping malls. If they themselves could so easily get into deep trouble at the mall -- what with maxxed-out credit cards, fatty fast foods, titillation by Victoria's peekaboos, and all the rest -- think what mischief the youngsters might stumble upon!

Never mind the obvious infatuation of adults with these glittering temples of consumption: kids should stay home and read books.

What a relief when the Internet loomed with its promise of information by the bucketful. No more would education be boring! No longer would access to knowledge and high culture be limited by geography or accident of birth! Youngsters far too young to drive could nonetheless head out on the infobahn and learn!

No scheme this good for high-tech companies, this fine for photo-ops, this full of techno-speak, and this lofty-sounding could have conceivably avoided notice by politicians not to mention the possibility that it might prove to be good for children). So, naturally, the goal of hooking every child in America to a modem became a new Grail.

Lately the President has weighed in (again) on connectivity, proposing funding specifically targeted to provide the nation's poor children with computers. He wants Internet access to become as ubiquitous as the telephone. Meanwhile, completely invisible to anyone with closed eyes, the Internet was tripping all over itself in a mad rush to become ... a shopping mall!

While media gadflies fumed over Channel One -- that ill-starred attempt at classroom-friendly educational TV, complete with a few corporate sponsors -- every school board in the land diverted funds to computerized networking. We must connect!

Connect to what?

To the mall, dummy. Soon every techno-tyke in G-7-dom will be linked to the mall-without-walls.

Ah, for the good old days, when a search engine was a search engine instead of a friendly stranger with mail-order catalogs under its trenchcoat. I recall when I could type in a request for "wallabies" or "Burundi" and get a list of a few hundred documents and sites that fit the bill. True, I was as likely to find a 6th-grader's book report as a university study or a government report, but at least it was non-commercial.

Now, my search pops up adverts by the ton, with links to bookstores, travel agencies, magazines, and movies. Plus credit cards, mortgage loans, rental cars, cell phones and jewelry. What's worse, the "real" links -- by which I mean the information that I am actually after -- are boring old text, while the ads blink and whirl in myriad colors.

This is educational?

Furthermore, this mall of the mind offers a whole raft of items never found at the asphalt and stucco version out on the edge of town. Generally speaking it is rare for a child to run into plans for nuclear bombs or automatic weapon conversion kits over at the Happy Valley Outlet Center, not to mention hate-group propaganda and sexual come-ons in 37 flavors.

The Internet is no place for kids. To young minds with limited experience in the ways of the world, it is a wasteland of overchoice, a maze of distractions that can only work against deep learning. School districts would do far better to invest in more teachers rather than more hardware.

It might be well to remember that the equation of the century just past, E=mc2, was not the product of an information superhighway, but of deep introspection on the nature of things. Socrates taught in simple conversations. The basis of communication is still clear grammar and manipulation of mathematical symbols. Interactive whistles and bells do not move thinking forward one inch, and more than likely simply get in the way.

Like television before, the Internet has grafted itself onto the big commercial beast that threatens to entertain us to death, pushing an agenda of consumption and waste that bodes to be our undoing.

It's time to quit malling the kids.

-- Cecil Bothwell III writes for Alternet, an independent news and information service. Domestic Bliss will return next week.

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