Jewish World Review May 19, 2000 / 14 Iyar, 5760
The place to find life is
not a keyboard
PERHAPS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT national news in the
recent days was a small item out of Fulton, Mo., that
you may have missed.
The administration of William Woods University in
Fulton, according to the news report, is offering
students a $5,000 tuition rebate it they accept a
difficult challenge and prove they are serious about
The challenge is this:
Get off the Internet. Turn off their computers.
Tuition is $13,000; the $5,000 will be knocked off
if the students can demonstrate that they have, in
fact, shut down their computers. Not shut the
machines down completely -- but shut them down
during moments that matter.
Those moments, according to Lance Kramer, vice
president and dean of academic affairs, are
moments when the students could be doing things
that the college experience is really supposed to be
about. According to Kramer:
"After all the technically challenging things are
mastered, we were concerned we weren't
combining them with cultural understandings,
human sensitivities." According to the news report,
an accomplished harpist was brought to the
university to present a concert; only about a dozen
people showed up to watch and listen. The new
plan involves a point system, in which students are
given points for attending campus cultural events or
joining campus organizations; earn the points, earn
the tuition rebate.
It's an idea that may be scoffed at by some people
-- why should college students be compensated for
joining clubs or going to concerts and lectures, the
critics of the plan will argue -- but the thinking
behind it is sound and inventive. Someone at
William Woods University -- someone very smart
-- is paying close attention to what is happening to
our society. And that person has a clearer
understanding of the troubling aspects of our new
computer-centered world than do many analysts
who for years now have been saying that the
worldwide computer network is the very
embodiment of the future.
"You can go anywhere in the world" -- that is the
line we have heard over and over, as proponents of
the Internet society have exulted over the way we
are beginning to live. Sit at your keyboard, decide
which area of interest you are intrigued about today
-- then tap the keys, and you're there. Put a word
or a descriptive phrase into the search engine, and
you can be in Rome at 9 a.m., inside the New
York Yankees organization at 10 a.m., at a
museum in Paris at 11 a.m., deep in the workings
of a ball-bearing manufacturer at noon. You can go
anywhere; you can experience anything.
Except it's not true. It's the Big Lie -- that the
Internet can take you places. The Internet is an
amazing, even thrilling, research and
communications tool -- there is knowledge out
there for the taking, knowledge (both serious and
lightweight) that is more convenient and accessible
than anything ever imagined. The Internet is not
only valuable -- it will soon be irreplaceable.
But it doesn't take you anywhere. That's the lie,
that's the illusion. Every minute you are on the
Internet, you are confined to your chair in the room
where you and your computer are locked in this
cold new embrace. You are alone. Even when you
are sending e-mails and instant messages, you are
alone; even when you are looking at a screen filled
with information that fascinates you, you are alone.
It doesn't feel like it; it feels like you are traveling.
But when you turn your computer off -- often
surprised when you calculate just how long you've
been on -- you are still in the same place you were
sitting when the session began. You are still by
And what they seem to be saying at William
Woods University is: There's a better way. Life
does not -- or should not -- consist of pecking at
keys and pretending to be somewhere enriching,
pretending to be speaking with people. Life is not
digital; life is not fiberoptically connected. Life is . .
Well, life is what it always has been. Life is out
there -- not out there in cyberspace, but really out
there, out the door, out of your room, out into the
world of people doing things and looking each
other in the eye and hearing each others' voices.
Life is warm; life is 98.6 degrees, give or take a
point. Life is not arrived at via a search engine,
unless the search is attached to your feet and your
heart. Life involves a commute -- you have to go
It's not on a screen. The people who run William
Woods University seem to be among the first to
understand that. Funny, that it should sound like a
revolutionary new concept: Life is not on a screen.
Life is out there where it's always
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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