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Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2002 / 27 Elul, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Consumer Reports

Tales from the Techno Valley and Forest | On a recent August night in a central New York valley, 17-year-old Spencer Lee King murdered 14-year-old Annie "Nonie" Drummond. At least, that's what King reportedly told local police in the farming community of Fabius before being charged with stabbing, beating and burning Drummond to death in the farmhouse she shared with her grandfather, who was away that night on a camping trip. Poor Nonie, it seems, had lied to King about her age, and he "snapped."

The local papers and even The New York Times were full of the details -- the two teen-agers shared "a zeal for MTV" and "a weakness for junk food." Clearly, this was a case that couldn't be reduced to the brevity of regional round-ups. Why? Sordid life and violent death are not by themselves considered noteworthy. What seems to have made this case news were its roots in rural youth and the poisonous fruit they bore in cyberspace. Lonely Nonie Drummond is thought to have been murdered on her grandfather's apple farm right smack in the middle of nowhere by a teen-age drifter she "met" on the Internet. She never got a real look at him until the night of her own death.

Leaving the crime scene particulars to the professionals, it doesn't require much imagination to take Nonie's fate as one more cautionary tale about the Internet and how "unfettered access" may work, insidiously, both ways. When we open ourselves up to that new, wired world out there -- or, much worse, allow children to open themselves up -- we expose ourselves to its shadowy denizens, many of whom shouldn't be entrusted with the family dog, much less our daughters.

Of course, as any techno-booster will tell you (even I'll admit it), looking for love in all the wrong chat rooms is rarely fatal. Indeed, Wired magazine breathlessly insists in its September issue that being "hyperconnected" to the Internet to achieve what it calls "full fluency" is actually good thing. In other words, Drummond may have wasted her own short life searching the flashing screens of a PC and MTV for fulfillment and purpose, but her more typical peers, the magazine reports, are poised to "unlock the potential of a transformative technology."

What does that mean? Unless telling all your friends what you are wearing to a party really, really fast is your idea of transformative technology, not much. Worse, some variation on Nonie's fate would seem to be just a click away from all too many kids spotlighted in Wired's rundown on teen techno-trends. That doesn't necessarily go for the cathode-glazed millions who park at Web pages like for an average of 50 minutes a day to "care" for such "pets" as cybunnies and poogles: They're just wasting their minds. But the youngsters desperately trolling chat rooms for prom dates are obviously at risk, along with all the kids learning social skills on instant-messengers, a mode of communication faster than the speed of e-mail that seems to strip away the natural protections of shyness and uncertainty. As Wired notes, "37 percent of IM-ing teens have used IM to say something they would not have said face-to-face."

More disturbing still are the teens Wired cutely calls "young experts in urges and acquisitions" -- kids who post "flirty" photos of themselves, wish lists, links to online stores and even shipping instructions. "Mes gotta wishlist ;D love me? buy something," lispingly writes 16-year-old Tammee of Kernersville, N.C. Featuring shots of her bra (filled) and mouth (filled with braces), Tammee has posted a shopping list of appliances that runs from a heated eyelash curler, to a "Memorex Travelview 43055 Mobile VCR with 9-inch Color Screen," to a $1,500 Compaq computer setup. One of Tammee's accompanying comments: ";D WOW ... puh puh puh please :: gets on knees and begs." Wired's accompanying comment: "The gift strategy seems to work, though police worry the sites can be a prowling ground for pedophiles." Gee, I wonder why.

Luckily, all the techno-news isn't bad. In Oregon's Silicon Forest outside Portland, just minutes from the software giant Intel, Wired reports that a small, computer-free private school called Swallowtail draws one-third of its students from families employed by the high-tech industry. No Luddites here -- just parents who feel that computers (and television and movies and radio) are an obstacle to children's learning in the years before high school. Talk about counter-cultural. Their belief is that computer skills may be acquired in a few months, much like learning to drive a car, and hardly require 13 years of expensive, time-consuming drilling. They, as software professionals, should know. And we, as software neophytes, should stop -- and think about it.

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JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Diana West