Banning Boors At the Modem

The operating system of a computer is the software that runs all the other software loaded on it. An operating system (OS) functions like syntax in language.

Public discourse, if you will, is the operating system of a democracy. Its syntax influences the personal and social behavior of all citizens.

For the past two decades, computer users have taken for granted that something better, faster, more powerful and useful will routinely appear. This is a tremendous gift to bequeath the next generation.

For the past two decades, public discourse regressed. Far too much political, social, and artistic exchange became boorish, coarse, or tasteless. This is not a trend citizens want to continue.

Gail Chaddock looks at the damage done to public discourse. She considers why stridency litters the public square. And how the weight of adversarial talk shows, political attack ads, and violent cable TV programming has taken a toll.

We can begin to reverse this. The near universal presence of personal computers linked to the Internet gives each of us the means to control the information and news we read and watch, and in turn how we join in discussing it with others.

As computers improve, we must link the power they give us to use information with a standard of decorum and civility. When we communicate with others, we can control boorishness, stop it at the modem.

Apple just released a new version of its operating system, Mac OS 8.5. It includes a wholly new feature in Web surfing, one that pilots the tide of information flowing across the net.

Apple calls it Sherlock. It acts like a personal cyberdetective. Kids (and adults) will love it. (And if Apple has a new way of searching the Internet, can Microsoft be far behind?)

Type in a question in English and Sherlock automatically understands what you've asked, links your query simultaneously to multiple search engines like Alta Vista or Infoseek (from six to 60 search engines can be engaged simultaneously), and lists in order of relevance pages on the Internet that answer the question asked.

At the dawn of television, news shows were little more than radio with talking heads. Children growing up today with CNN experience news in an exponentially more complex way than those first formats. Sherlock will change our use of search engines the way CNN changed television news. With expected improvements, its use will strike many as an extension of their own thinking.

As new, artificial-intelligence tools stream audio and video images here, there, and everywhere onto computer screens parents, teachers, authors, and journalists, must actively and wisely counsel young people to employ courteous, constructive use of search engines. Such use, in so critical a tool of the Information Age, becomes a strong means to elevate public discourse.

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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