The popular perception is that computers are valuable educational tools - popular, that is, with people who know nothing about computers. The rest of us know the truth to be elsewhere, but tend to keep quiet about it because our livelihoods depend on keeping the myth alive. An exception to this rule is Clifford Stoll who trained as a programmer as a young man but has turned against computers in later life. Mr Stoll wrote a book called Silicon Snake Oil in which he expounded his theory that computers in general are a waste of time and that the Internet is the ultimate expression of high-tech pointlessness. It says something positive about humanity that the book went on to be a best seller. Now Mr Stoll is at it again with a work-in-progress aimed at demonstrating that, contrary to the belief of politicians, trendy academics and computer companies themselves, computers are of little or no value in primary and secondary education. As Mr Stoll told the Dallas Morning News: "Along the way, I've discovered that using computers ... was a great way to make it look like I was doing wonderful academics when, in fact, I'm just screwing around." Mole hopes that the new book appears before Christmas. If so, it will make a perfect stocking filler for Mole's Nintendo-crazed nieces and nephews. Mr Stoll is not alone in questioning the social value of the Internet. Recent research suggests that surfing the Internet is not just a waste of time but could make you unhappy or even mad. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have spent several months and $1.5 million studying the effects of online habits on social interaction. They found that even people who spend as little as an hour a week online are more likely to suffer from depression and loneliness, and can expect a decline in the number of friends they have. Although chat rooms, forums and other forms of online community appear to increase social interaction, they do so only in the most superficial way. A director of the study told the New York Times: "Our hypothesis is, there are more cases where you're building shallow relationships (on the Internet), leading to an overall decline in feeling of connection to other people." The growing body of informed opinion about the negative effects of IT is unlikely to make much difference to sales of "educational" computerised bits and piece, such as the cute and cuddly Barney the Dinosaur from Microsoft, a toy designed less to educate than to indoctrinate. Signs to watch out for in the under eights include a tendency to spend all day huddled over a computer, frequent use of the words "cool" and "paradigm", and attempts to start their own companies. Children with glasses, heavy Internet habits and no friends are considered to be at particularly high risk. Parents are advised to be on their guard. Whatever educational uses computers may have, it will some time before we see one capable of teaching language skills. PC Week regular Brian Clegg's French pen pal Henri, whose English language messages are translated from his native French by a piece of software, has been back in touch. Here's a brief extract from his latest rib-tickling offering, which appears to contain a warning about the dangers of the Internet, though it's impossible to be sure. "Brian Estimable, The considerable thanks of you answer. You software for the language is improved much that my kind of shareware - where is to be found. "It is now possible to include/understand the reason of the bad word. Internet is problematic with much pornographique available if the button supported on danger pressed. I do not require to see the French bottom of erotic principle of Alta-Vista that www.cul.co.uk accidental gives. Families with the small particular person in danger. "Since the text of slit into type is vanilla, umlauf nonvisible. Is very the easy error in time forwards with the European of the trade unions. Better to speak friends than the argument of the football which recent English have." Microsoft has made a tentative entry to the music business in the Far East, where it has teamed up with a Hong Kong record company to produce a CD with the title "Lai". Despite appearances, this is not the Chinese word for "marketing" or "claimed feature or benefit", it actually means "come along". The purpose of the disc is to discourage software piracy by appealing to the Chinese sense of social responsibility and the greater good. It had better be a pretty convincing little number because exhortations to the Chinese to stay legal have so far fallen on deaf ears. According to figures from the Business Software Alliance as much as 96% of business software used in the region is pirated. Good to see that Time Computers has a sense of humour. Mole was engrossed in the television documentary Black Box the other week when he spied an advertisement for Time during the commercial break. The item that preceded it showed the world's first fly-by-wire aeroplane, an A320 Airbus, crashing in flames as the pilot battled with a rogue computer - and lost. Let's hope Time's customers have better luck. A flyer pops through Mole's letterbox reminding him about this year's UK Technology Week, which takes place on 6-8 October. Even Mole doesn't need a computer to work out that this particular week is only three days long. No wonder the computer industry is having a little difficulty with the millennium. Depressed, lonely, shunned by your pals? Write to Mole and feel better fast.
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