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Cyber grouch


DOES YOUR blood run cold, friend, when you read about the glories of "cyberspace"? Do you have to repress a shriek of protest every time you hear or read or think about "the information highway"?

If so, it means you are an old stick-in-the-mud and are doomed to end up in the dustbin of history unless you surrender immediately and come along quietly into the age of electronics amok.

As a devout reactionary, I naturally despise what these zealous engineers propose to do to us, but cruel experience reminds me it is foolish to oppose them when they are in the heat of re-inventing the world.

My distaste for this latest creative onset begins with petty, unworthy, whining objections. Why, for instance, must they refer to what is being advertised as a magical, irresistible electronic playground as "cyberspace"?

People capable of afflicting anybody, anything or anyplace with a name like "cyberspace" surely cannot have the spiritual and aesthetic delicacy essential to creation of a magical, irresistible playground, can they?

As for "the information highway," sometimes called "the information superhighway," the underlying assumption strikes me as fatally defective. The modern world is not dying for want of more information. Quite the opposite; its plight is too much information. It is being battered senseless, then buried under avalanches of information.

Day and night it is assaulted by a ceaseless flow of information. Often so much information arrives so swiftly that no one can digest it, make sense of it or judge whether it's information worth having.

The national love of gadgetry is involved here. The prospect of hundreds and hundreds of TV channels emptying into our minds, of movies pumping into our eyeballs through the telephone while incoming messages are depleting our fax-paper supply and our computer is talking to the bank and paying the gas bill.

It is a horror reminiscent of the Mickey Mouse sequence in "Fantasia," in which the magically activated water buckets cannot be restrained in their determination to drown the world. Our love of gadgets, however, makes us see it as a delight.

Already people who once walked abroad on the great green earth and breathed the outdoor air now sit glued through the night to their electronic machines, chatting it up with similarly afflicted cyberspaceniks around the world.

All this is being promoted, most notably by Vice President Al Gore, as a blessing for humanity. And who is to argue with a vice president?

Still, considering only that part of humanity that is American, it is hard to see how it is going to bless the substantial part of the population that (a) can't afford the machinery and (b) lacks the know-how to make it work.

Many high schools regularly graduate their young so innocent of computer knowledge that they have never worked a keyboard. This considerable part of the population is already going to have trouble avoiding the dustbin of history. The advent of Cyberspace Triumphant is likely to cripple it more thoroughly.

Holding itself together as a nation is already becoming difficult for the United States. The trend everywhere is toward slicing the country into slivers.

Congress, suddenly uneasy with the Union, tries to give power back to single states. A country that once insisted everybody be "American without a hyphen" is now restoring its hyphens.

The famous Kerner Report's prediction that increasingly divisive racial and economic-group differences would turn the United States into "two nations" looks more accurate with each passing year.

Mr. Gore apparently sees a happier future in which the good old one nation indivisible will go through life with a laptop on every knee. Let us hope so.

The mood of the prevailing half of the country as expressed in the election just past and by the present Congress does not, however, seem to bode well for cyberspace for all.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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