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Proliferation of Computer Junkies Must Be Stopped

Arif Husain

Column by A. Arif Husain
Opinion Editor

For several months, I've been confirming a notion that is now distastefully clear to me. It is an idea that a new movement has begun in American society, and it's a movement that isn't necessarily going to bring us into a better state of social order.

The 1960s in this country hosted a liberal renaissance, a loosening of tethers, and a freeing of mind and spirit. It ushered us into a more open-minded America. The motion of the current decade is one which appears to encourage communication but effectively discourages social interaction. I fear my words may come as a harbinger for an upsetting future, but nonetheless, I don't hesitate to take charge of my wits and boldly herald us into what I can not better label the Age of the Geek.

What do I mean by geek? On this campus, we are all too aware of the sun-fearing cluster-dwellers who while away hours ad infinitum, tweaking and typing; soldering and connecting. Affectionately, we call these people geeks. But like any isolated group, they are mostly harmless.

My present obligations extend to outward society - the common people. For this group, my definition of geek will be a somewhat different one. While it is much to my dismay that so many MIT students pass up the rich opportunities that abound outside the solace of their computer rooms and engineering laboratories, I must concede that their efforts do not go without reward. MIT boasts an exemplary history of technological achievement, with innovations such as radar and X-windows to our credit. Thus, I can not honestly deal any criticism here. The issue I cite as the central one to the growing impetus of the Geek Age stems from the home.

Just having passed through a boob-tube generation that has made this country one of the most obese on the planet, has stifled our potential for excelling in education internationally, and stands to weaken the moral and social fabric of our families, we are facing a new wolf in sheep's clothing. Touted as the steam engine of a great information revolution, the home computer, along with the Internet, has become a red-hot icon of modern education. But education is not what is being had. With the couch potato as our national vegetable, it's not an optimistic sign that we are now turning to computers to satisfy our passion for lethargy.

In the beginning, there was utility. Now we have frivolity. The signal-to-noise-ratio of the Internet is suffocatingly low, and far too many information explorers reach new frontiers on par with "The Official Cotton Candy Homepage" or "Crazy Robert's Archive of Famous Ear Lobes." Education, I would say, should be made of sterner stuff.

The collective eternity of hours spent wading through such net sludge is costly to those who support the net as a useful tool for learning and communicating. Further, the medical profession is sure to see the repercussions of a new generation of desk potatoes as repetitive strain injury and monitor eye strain join the current list of everyday ailments.

More than just marked by a tendency toward the barely useful, current home computing has tickled a new expanding niche of the technophile variety. The grease-covered teen who once spent all day on the driveway tweaking the gears of his tail-finned convertible is now replaced by a far less svelte, but equally driven youth whose passions lie in the smooth rumble of a two-gigabyte hard drive or the hot compute of a Pentium Pro.

It is this image that fits my working definition of geek. It is an image that embodies a loss rather than a gain. The home computer is perhaps the most influential invention of the late 20th century. But influence is not necessarily beneficial.

As leaders in the area of computing, we need to act responsibly to ensure that the geek population is kept in check. Our children should not have to enter a world in which drive space defines the haves and the have-nots. Success must not be measured in bits per second. Despite Forrest Gump, life is not like a box of diskettes. The richest man on this planet should not be a software geek. Bob Dole should not be flaunting his World Wide Web address at national political forums. Silicon should not be the most common household element.

This column is the first in a short series on the topic of informational computing.