OTH op-ed

Shooting Craps in Cyberspace:
Musings on the Present and Future of a Wired Society

Andy Carvin
New Media Program Officer
Corporation for Public Broadcasting

(Note: This essay is to be published in the THE Journal: Technological Horizons in Education, and may not be copied or republished without the consent of the author and THE Journal's publishers.)

UNLESS YOU'VE SPENT the last two years cryogenically frozen or stowed away on a Vogon garbage scow in the depths of space, there's no point in harping on what's become obvious to millions of folks: The Internet has arrived, resistance is futile.

Sure, the Net's been around for over 25 years, but thanks to the development of the World Wide Web, as well as the ever-falling cost of connectivity, millions of eager Internet newbies have now jumped head first into the World of the Wired, the Land of the LAN. Email addresses are becoming as ubiquitous as phone numbers. Companies are shelling out big bucks for online advertising, gambling on the sheer number of websurfers who might happen to pass by. And personal homepages have become the new status symbol of the tragically hip - acquiring one gives us the instant excuse to complain about those who haven't done the same.

I'm online, you're online, we're all online. So what do we do now?

Like it or not, but as a communications medium, the web is still in its formative years - lots of flash, fun and occasional utility, yet quite immature in terms of person-to-person interactivity. Because we've been able to whet our appetite with the web's high-bandwidth multimedia potential, many of us have begun to lose sight of the fact that compared to other means of online communication - namely, email, discussion lists, and usenet groups - the web is really a one-way street. While progress is being made in the area of web-based chatrooms and other meeting spaces, the Internet's greatest strength still lies in low-bandwidth, text-based interpersonal communication. How long that'll last, though, remains to be seen.

Additionally, many new web users are often shocked to find out that the World Wide Web is not an online encyclopaedia, where information on absolutely anything is available in an instant. The Web is simply a reflection of what we as an online community have chosen to put online, and not necessarily what we need to put online.

Considering that the general public has been online for a relatively short time, it's still amazing how much information there is out there. In terms of education, there's a wealth of resources online lying in wait for a great research project, assuming you can separate the occasional nuggets of informational gold from the ever-growing glut of cyberdebris. And now that web serving is becoming a viable option for many schools, students can publishing their own work online. Instead of existing solely as a place for kids to browse and observe, the Internet becomes an incredible tool for the construction of creative personal projects, both for school and for recreation.

If they build it, they will learn - a new pedagogical mantra for the cyber-informed? Perhaps. We've reached a point in the maturation of the Internet where everyone seems to agree that being online can be a good thing, but we're not really sure what to do after that. The web will continue to grow in terms of size and complexity: with the help of new applications such as Java and Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), web developers are starting to create exciting multimedia resources of all colors and creeds. And this is only the beginning.

Like it or not, the web is expanding faster than we can process its potential impact on us as teachers, as learners, as citizens. For all we know, it could devolve into a purely commercial medium - a digital, hypertextual cousin of modern television. Or it could become a Jeffersonian commons where ideas, issues and people come together in the hopes of bettering themselves. Perhaps neither, perhaps both. But the only way we'll ever get to where we want to go is by coming out now, staking our claim, and taking some chances to see what works and what doesn't.

The greater question can't be where the Internet will take us, technologically speaking. Instead, we need to decide where we as a collective of communities want to take it.

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