The Internet and The Little Prince

April 2, 2011 — Leave a comment

Does anyone else remember the days of flimsy airletters that flitted around the world stamped par avion? Receiving a wispy blue letter from my grandmother in England mailed to me in Singapore is one of my fondest memories. Then when I went to boarding school in Australia aged ten, the thrill of my name being called out by the prefect in charge of dispensing mail to the hopeful pupils was immeasurable. Most mail darted precisely to the upraised hands, their crisp white envelopes sharp and sure in the air, and there being an element of pride in the throwing technique of the prefect. Mine would eventually reach me crumpled and stained from the many hands that caught and tossed the airletter as it fluttered from student to student on its final flight path. I didn’t care; it was after all news from home, in those days Malaysia.

Communications have come a long way. But in some ways the speed of information, the knowing of every single thing our children are doing at any given time, has rather than increase our freedom actually hampered it, certainly from our children’s perspective.

There was an element of liberation knowing that whatever the misdemeanour, the knowledge of such would not reach my parents for at least three weeks by which time, more often than not, the infraction had been forgotten or detention given and received.

The ease of communication has brought new stressors for both children and parents, particularly those families who have chosen the boarding school route. What sounded like an irredeemable issue over the phone when Susie sobbed she had fallen out with her roommate Rebecca may well be over by the time an irritated house matron finds them both, now happily making cocoa together in the common room. Instant access to and from houseparents to homeparents, often without the child’s awareness, can bring unneeded and unwanted interference in an issue often best resolved by the protagonists.

There are of course occasions when instant intervention is paramount but on the whole children learn compassion, and compromise, from day to day encounters, good and bad. They are lessons that give them greater decision-making powers within appropriate parameters that can only stand them in good stead as adults.

But this is where it gets tricky now with the overload of information spewing through the ether. We cannot make decisions without information. And knowing the information is now freely available with the slightest touch of a finger gives us far greater rights, which in turn allows us greater freedom of choice. Where though does the actuality of freedom occur if we are constantly being monitored, or indeed doing the monitoring?

On the global front that freedom of choice, of sharing information, is at greatest risk in countries like Indonesia and China where the fear of sedition, sharply brought into focus by the recent events throughout the Middle East, is greatest. The intelligence bill under debate in Jakarta at the moment wants the National Intelligence Agency to have the right to trawl social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter looking for posts that threaten public security, under the guise of searching for pornography and gambling sites.

The term threaten public security might better be described in this case as searching for those individuals looking to inform the general populous of human rights infringements, or advocating good governance and freedom of speech and assembly, all of which can only be achieved through a transparent democracy.

So here is my dichotomy. On the one hand I thrive on the ease of the Internet, and admire the way in which social media is most definitely a catalyst for change in countries not as open as others. On the other I fear for the over use and abuse of both. How do we reach that happy medium of use and not abuse? How do we monitor children and teens so they are safe, but still able to explore and satisfy their curiosity?

Some days I find myself swinging back to the thrill of receiving a flimsy blue aerogramme, with the nod to Saint Exupery’s pioneer airmail delivery in the Saharan deserts by having par avion stamped in the corner. Maybe like his Little Prince we are all just travelling the universe searching to understand life.

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