Real world Net cynicism in a wired world
Recently my better half and I gave a talk to a group of 18- and 19-year-olds on why the Internet is important and how it is going to impact their lives.

Getting the group together was a tough task in itself. The organizer had to battle with the teenagers' schedule which seemed packed beyond belief. At the rate they were going, I could have baked a dozen cheesecakes several times over.

When the day arrived, brimming with enthusiasm, we dispensed nuggets of gold on the wonders of the Internet and how we, who have had the surfing experience, could see the potential that lay ahead of these youngsters. We wanted them to see it, too. We wanted to show them and give them a shortcut in life.

After almost an hour of expounding the possibilities of the Net, we arrived at question time. The audience went silent. Not to be dismissed, we asked the questions instead... What we heard instead was "no time", "too busy with schoolwork", "cybercafe so far", "I can't afford", "I tried to get on but the Internet was so slow", "my friend said don't buy PC because it'll go obsolete".

We stared at these teenagers in disbelief. These were excuses and not acceptable argument for not getting online. At least the group was candid and frank with its answers. But it was alarming how these teens saw IT as something they could live without--at least for now.

Sure, using computers is part of their school lessons. But at a rate of one hour a week in the syllabus, the PC was reduced to an item, something they switched on to complete English comprehension exercises.

Some have been more fortunate. They have explored the Net, chatted in chat rooms, and sent an occasional email. Pretty mindless, they probably think. But if they didn't take charge of their activities online or allow their curiosity to get the better of them on the information superhighway, all that they do on the Net would continue to be mindless anyway.

Malaysia boleh?

It felt like being hit by a nuclear blast. How could this be? What happened to our national slogan "Malaysia boleh"? Did our youngsters' creative minds slowly submerge under the pressure of exams?

Did they fall prey to parental and peer pressure that success equals to excellent grades at school? Maybe I am too idealistic and should not be startled to discover that most Malaysian teenagers conduct mindless activities online. Wait a minute, let me correct that. Most Malaysians-- adults included--seem to prefer the fun facet of the Net.

We all like the entertainment and fun bits offered by the Net. Yet, as parents, alarms shrill for fear that their children's young minds will be poisoned by the World Wide Web. After all, the Net does have its fair share of lies and pornography, malicious hackers and manuals on making bombs right in your living room.

And so it is not baffling to note that our youngsters think the answer lies in the system. They perceive the need to fit within the system. Otherwise they will fall along the wayside.

It is a Malaysian mindset that is, alas, difficult to blot out.

Learning to swim in the information sea

The sad fact is the Internet is really the best thing since sliced bread. It has leveled the playing field, giving everyone of us the opportunity to test and realize our potential. But to find out what can be done through the Net, our kids need to experience the entire process in discovering the Net before trying something more serious.

So as the Internet continues to empower kids elsewhere in the world, we will always be contriving to catch up. We will argue about how much time our kids spend in front of the PC monitor and the rising phone bills that we parents have to bear as a consequence.

Our view of the Net remains myopic as we continue to delude ourselves that the Internet is a new "toy" that must be kept away from our children. We live in the delusion that information is a beast that comes with the label "to be handled by adults only". Little wonder that our kids are less than enthusiastic about the Internet.

We warned our young audience: "You can run from computers, you can avoid them... but you cannot avoid information. Information is destined to overwhelm you."

The point is to get on with the Net. It is too large to ignore. The sooner we are familiar with that "beast", the better we will understand it. Hopefully, that understanding will someday translate into wisdom.

For now, that wisdom is sorely lacking. Many parents continue to believe that even trickling bits of information to youngsters will do more harm than good. While kids elsewhere are agile swimmers in the current of the information sea, exploring its murky bottom and setting up hyperlinked islands of their own design on the surface, we sit back as if to say: "You don't need to know how to swim in order to live in this wired world".

Disregarding the Net is not only willful, our children may become the next casualty and join the league of roadkills littering the information superhighway.

By Anita Devasahayam, Published in CNET Asia, November 29, 1999