National Geographic : 1995 Oct
game, sharing thoughts with more directness and intensity than would have been possible in the early stages of a "real-life" relation ship. Karen knew something special was happening; they discussed meeting each other. It seemed scary. Then Karen sent an e-mail: "I'm coming to meet you." They have been married for two years. Technology can also foster skin contact between those who live near one another. Senior citizens in Blacksburg, Virginia, use their computers not only to chat but also to organize get-togethers. "It's like wandering into the town center to meet friends and to check the bulletin board," says Dennis Gentry, a retired Army officer. "Only you can do it in pajamas anytime you want." The desire for skin can be seen in downtowns and shopping malls-people want human contact even when they could buy things via television or the telephone. Although computers and fax machines make it easier to work at home, business districts continue to grow. More people than ever crowd into major cities, in large part because companies that provide goods and services benefit from being near one another. Employees also seek the relationships that come only from being with other people. NEED FOR SKIN does not negate the electronic screen's power to mesmerize. No brain scan or biochemical study has identified a phys ical basis for our seemingly insatiable hunger for electronic stimula tion. Computers are often more alluring than television, which already has a grip on us. Young Americans today spend about as much time in front of a television as in aclassroom. At midnight 1.8 million children under age 12 are still watching television. The aver age adult American watches more than 30 hours every week. Parents could restrict their children's electronic consumption. But we, too, are addicted. Give up electronic links for a day? No telephone, television, or computer? Try a week. Few can do it. Momentum is in the opposite direction. When atwo-year-old clicks at the keyboard and the next day says, "Mommy, Daddy, more 'puter," his parents feel something good is happening. Our dependency on the "electronic needle" will increase if wire less, palm-size receivers become available. These devices-a com bination telephone, computer, fax, and television-will provide hundreds of video, audio, and text channels. Handheld receiv ers that link to e-mail, Internet services, and fax communica tions are already on the market, but too expensive for most people. Such technological innovations do not permeate asoci ety until someone can profit from them. The first fax was sent from Lyon to Paris in 1865, but use of faxes did not become widespread until technology made text encoding and transmis sion much cheaper, 120 years later. Reliance on the electronic screen is part of something larg er, the spread of technological civilization. George Steiner, a cultural historian who teaches at Cambridge University, warns that this civilization produces a creeping sameness that threat ens local cultures. The source of most of this uniformity is the advertising and enter tainment industries. Worldwide sales of American movies and tele vision programs now total more than five billion dollars a year. A New Delhi newspaper calls these media "termites eating away at our traditional values." SOFTWARE A computer is only as smart as its software, the meticulous instruc tions, or programs, that tell it whattodoandhowtodoit. Some programs control basic operating functions such as pro cessing and storing data or finding bugs. Others deal with the many specialized demands of users, which include playing games, com municating with other computer users, manipulating text, creating images, and organizing data.