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Jewish World Review May 19, 2000 / 14 Iyar, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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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 it.

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 yourself.

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 find it.

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 been.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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