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Debra Littlejohn Shinder

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Does the net stifle or promote creativity? Some commentators have claimed that web-surfing is just the modern equivalent of watching TV, that the couch potato has merely been replaced by the mouse potato. Is it true? Are those who inhabit cyberspace turning into brain-dead netheads, dependent upon technology to entertain them?

Certainly there are visual commonalties between the "flaming, dancing icons" of today's cutting edge Javascripted, Hyperactive-X web pages and the visual appearance of modern sound-bytten, special effects driven commercial television programming. But once you get past the surface, how alike are the two activities, actually?

Parents who were so proud when little Johnny gave up The Simpsons to "work" on his computer may have come to wonder if they were deluding themselves after all. Believing their child's interests had evolved to a more intellectual plane, they may have been a bit disappointed to find that when he plops down at the keyboard each night, he's signing on to the official Beavis and Butthead site or staying up past his bedtime to learn new, exotic slang words from his Australian buddies on the IRC chat channel.

According to some recent studies, those in certain demographic categories are spending considerably less time watching TV, and that fact correlates with the increased amount of time spent staring at a monitor screen instead. As computer prices continue to fall to within reach of more and more households, the trend is likely to continue. The question: is this really an improvement, or just more of the same basic behavior, disguised as something new?

In looking for answers, let's consider first the impact that television has had on our society over the years. The Ozzie and Harriet TV land that we in our forties remember has given way (as has the world off-screen) to something very different.

There are those who would say that TV has caused the crumbling of morals in the western world, but deeper reflection leads one to the more probable conclusion that the crumbling of morals has caused the devolution of programming content. Still, if television reflects the values and mores of the times, popular programs today make what is to some a troubling -- even frightening -- statement.

Not so many years ago, camera views of Elvis Presley's lower body were banned to protect viewers from the sight of his gyrating pelvis. The Rolling Stones' song, "Let's Spend the Night Together" was widely censored, considered too racy for primetime audiences. Today, however, it seems almost anything goes: partial nudity, sexual innuendo of every variety, and all but a small handful of words are commonplace on broadcast TV -- and never mind what you can hear and see these days on cable programming. Now they say that everything we want to see (and sometimes don't want to see) is printed, played and broadcast in the name of creative license and artistic freedom and (at least in these United States) first amendment rights; how can we argue with that?

Then along comes the Internet. Suddenly it's no longer necessary to have large amounts of money and/or a generous backer in order to publish your opinions, art, or just plain drivel to a world-wide audience.

Now those who once just sat and watched the creations of others can create their own "shows." And it can be done relatively easily, inexpensively, and in the comfort of one's own home. Of course, the corollary of that privilege is some sacrifice in quality, but who's to judge?

Perfect taste was never guaranteed on television, either, of course, but one did need a good, healthy bank account to be able to broadcast your product. The first television producers, for example, were ultimately beholden to their sponsors. There were also FCC regulations to contend with, and the very real threat of low Nielson ratings if the prevailing standards of public taste were crossed and viewers (i.e., advertisement audiences) were offended.

On the net, we are free to express our "creative ideas" -- or our not so creative ones, for that matter -- however we wish (with a few noteworthy exceptions such as the purveyance of child pornography, which despite certain jurisdictional problems is still prosecuted pretty vigorously). There is a virtually unlimited spectrum of art, entertainment and information available on the web, far more than was ever available on television - even cable television. There is also, of course, more useless drivel - but in this case, we, the public, are the judge of what we do or do not want to see.

So what about online "viewers," those who surf the pages much the same way TV addicts surf the channels? How do they differ from their boob-tube counterparts -- if at all?

Net advocates are quick to point out that the web, unlike television, is interactive. You don't just sit and stare, you take action, make choices. You can chat in realtime with others, or zap off an e-mail message in response to what you've seen. Unless you're a member of one of the "chosen few" Nielson families or one of the even fewer who take time to write to the producers, they never know whether you watched their program or not, much less what you thought about it. At most websites, it's easy to leave your mark on a guestbook or CGI form or by clicking on a "mailto" link.

This interactivity requires at least a little initiative on your part, and as such perhaps encourages you to be more participative instead of passive. Does this carry over into other areas of life? That's the $64,000 question.

Cyberpsychologists are divided into two camps. One group believes that computer-savvy youngsters (and maybe oldsters, too) are not only more assertive, but more likely to cross the line into inappropriately aggressive behavior. Because the net fosters a sense of distance and unreality, they say, we are less concerned about hurting the feelings of those faceless people on the other end of the modem line who seem more like the product of a sophisticated piece of software than like real human beings. This then desensitizes us to rude behavior, and makes us more likely to treat our "real world" acquaintances the same way.

The other group says the Internet is opening our eyes and our minds to a diversity of human culture that we never experienced before, and thus is making us more tolerant. They say we are learning new and better ways of communicating, since we're deprived of visual and auditory cues like voice tones and body language and thus are forced to pick and choose our words more carefully. They also point out how online communication often creates a sense of instant intimacy that allows us to open up to our net friends more easily than we ever could face-to-face.

Who's right? In my opinion, both views have merit. Like other tools (nuclear power, guns, even words themselves) the net can be used for good or for bad.

What does this have to do with our original question? I think the principle is the same: the Internet certainly has the potential to stifle your creative juices and turn you into a zombie with mouse-clicking madness, yet it also has the potential to spur your imagination to new heights and allow you to indulge and showcase your talents in ways never before possible. It's up to you how to use it.

Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a writer, editor, community college instructor and part-time computer consultant who lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas area with her husband, Tom, and her teenage son.

email Debra at:

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