The Magazine


Oct 30, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 07 • By STEPHEN BATES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Plenty of people will wince at what they find online. They'll clamor to make the Net safe for Middle America, especially its schoolchildren: Keep the Shoemaker-Levy photos, but oust the porn, pedophiles, and pyrotechnics. Invariably, critics will be able to cite offline harms resulting from the Net. Pedophiles will abuse children they first met online, kids will blow off fingers with the Net's bomb recipes, despondent teens will poison themselves using recipes from Maybe all these tragedies would have occurred without the Net, but that's tough to prove.

These critics will also argue that a medium partly funded with tax dollars, as the Net is (through state universities and state-funded networks as well as public schools), must reflect public sensibilities. It's the same argument that's raised against the National Endowment for the Arts, but with a twist. The NEA has aided a handful of projects likely to appall the average American. The Net aids thousands of them, and delivers them straight into the home and classroom. Technological fixes, such as software to block out the raunchy neighborhoods of cyberspace, will help, but they'll never be airtight; the average 14-year-old techno-nerd, after all, can out-hack most of his teachers and a fair number of software engineers.

Though a number of public schools are already online, there hasn't yet been much fuss. A lot of these schools require students to pledge that they'll stay away from certain parts of the Net -- perhaps as effective as posting the sign "Please don't look at these books" alongside a library shelf of sex guides. A year ago, I asked an ACLU official why conservative Christians, those traditional schoolbook flyspeckers, hadn't yet caught on to what this new medium was spewing. She held her finger to her lips and said, "Shhh. Don't tell them."

Well, a lot of them have discovered the Net for themselves now. So have those liberal parents who fret about subtle sexism and other outmoded stereotypes in schoolbooks. Cyberpolitics may be quirkily Third Wave -- at the Progress and Freedom Foundation conference, Gingrich shared the rostrum with Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Perry Barlow, a shaggy lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Offline politics, though, remains bogged down in the industrial-era Second Wave, where censorship disputes are commonplace and clamorous. This one is sure to be a beaut.

By Stephen Bates