Saturday, 22 March 2008

No Tech Please, We're British

Our Great Leader, Gordon Brown-Trousers, aka the McBean, has got a new bee in his bonnet. Well, actually, his headgear is probably home to a whole swarm, but this one has to take the biscuit for stating the bloody obvious.

According to the Telegraph, "Computers should be kept in sitting rooms rather than children's bedrooms so that parents can see if they are looking at inappropriate material, a report commissioned by Gordon Brown will suggest." No, really? Who'd have thought it!

But the revelations don't stop there. "A review of the impact of video and online games on young people by Tanya Byron, the television psychologist and parenting expert, is likely to recommend that, whenever possible, children should use computers under the watchful eye of their parents." Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs! I've never heard of Ms Byron, but the revelation that she's a psychologist - and a TV psychologist at that - doesn't fill me with confidence. Nor does the second string to her bow. Parenting expert? What the hell's that, then?

The article doesn't mention whether or not Ms Byron has any real knowledge or experience of computers and Information Technology (and by "real" I don't mean some toy town course like an ECDL or even a crappy AS Level in ICT), but I'd have thought that a fairly detailed knowledge of the kit under discussion might have helped.

Surprisingly for a psychologist, she makes a very valid point when she says that "parents must bridge the technological "generation gap" by making sure they know as much about the internet and video games as their computer-literate children." You would be amazed at how many parents have absolutely no clue about how all this fancy gear works, or where the potential risks lie. And even those who are dimly aware of the problem are largely stumped for a solution.

Courses in computing for parents would probably help, as would some well written, simple articles explaining just what the hell their offspring are talking about. IMs? MSN? AIM? SL? I know what they're wittering about because IT is my line of work, but for many parents who don't need to know the ins and outs of this stuff as part of their daily lives it's just so much meaningless jargon.

Even so, the world of IT changes quickly, and new toys, erm, sorry, applications come out all the time. Keeping abreast of it all is very much a full time job, and expecting parents to keep up with everything is asking a lot. On the other hand, computers are integrated further into our lives every day; many parents will work with them, even if they don't understand their nuances, and all kids are expected to use them for their homework. It's quite common for households to have 2, 3 or more computers around the place; one for each of the kids, one each for older progeny who are students or working but living at home, at least one for the parents. Imagine putting all of them in the living room - it would be like living in a data centre!

And then there are laptops. Laptops are becoming commonplace - kids need computers for their homework, and, not living in ever-expanding houses, parents buy laptops instead of desktop machines; they're smaller, easy to carry around, don't take up as much space and the price isn't all that different these days. Oh, and they almost always have a wireless network connection that allow them to share a single internet connection from anywhere in the home. Households with three or four kids, each with their own internet connected laptop are not uncommon, and are becoming more common every year. How does Ms Byron propose to handle that situation?

Again, the answer has to be education. You cannot hope to stop kids from accessing material online that you'd rather they didn't see; they're curious, intelligent, in many cases they know more about IT than their parents and no matter what parents do they WILL find a way to get at what they want, if not at home then at school, or at their friends' houses. Much better to teach them how to avoid problems, and what to do if they encounter something nasty than to fool yourself into thinking they never will - whilst, of course, taking other precautions like keeping an eye on what they're doing.

Naturally, the education system in use today isn't up to the task - or, in fact, up to any task. I recently showed an 18-year-old ICT AS Level student a copy of the A Level paper I sat (and passed!) 20+ years ago and they went pale. "Shit! You 'ad to know all that? Beedin' 'ell" was the response. Teaching kids about word processors and spreadsheets is all very well, but it doesn't help them with the realities of a connected world. It doesn't teach them how the technology works, or about the risks it presents or how to deal with them. Nor does the much-vaunted ECDL (and other "hands on" adult computer courses) teach parents how to protect their youngsters from online threats - or even identify what those threats may be to any great extent.

Sadly, empowering the individual is not what this Government is all about. Far from it, in fact. They seek control, legislating to get it where necessary, and protection of vulnerable members of society is not part of that agenda - unless they can be used as an excuse to impose new laws to take away our freedoms, of course! They very much prefer a society that is proficient in the limited use of IT, dependent upon it for work and leisure, but is largely unable to control its real power - that way, they can reap the rewards of productivity and needn't fear the spread of anti-government propaganda. What a wonderful place the UK has become.

Billy Seggars.

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