DIGITALLY DIVIDED DIGITALLY DIVIDED Instead of embracing the computer as part of the family, many are turning it away
By Amy Ettinger

CYBERMANIA has hit my family with full force.

With the newest additions this month of a CD ROM and a modem, we have now successfully merged onto the information superhighway. My brother has spent more time talking on the Internet in the last week than he's spent communicating with me my entire life.

It is exactly this kind of technological addiction that critics point to in discussing the harm that the ``digital revolution'' is bringing to our society. They contend that the world will not end with the bang of nuclear annihilation, but with the whimper of mouse buttons and computer keyboards.

Computer junkies are emerging everywhere, and many fear we will become a society of people who never leave our homes, who confuse megabytes with morality and who become so immersed in a virtual reality that we forget about the problems of humanity. They cringe from a world where people are known primarily by their catchy log-ons and their sophisticated hardware.

Some fear that the damage has already been done. In fact, a book by Barry Sanders, ``A is for Ox,'' places the blame for failing verbal test scores and rising violence among youth on the influx of technology. It's Sanders' belief that society's switch from the oral word to the visual image is a key contributing factor in illiteracy and violence among my generation. The use of computers in education, he believes, only worsens the problem as the child becomes even more estranged from verbal language.

This picture of ``technology gone wrong'' calls to mind images of old sci-fi movies, wherein men and women in tight, metallic pants fought against sadistic computers that threaten human existence. It is the classic example of the human being's neurosis about the machine. Because we don't completely understand it, we fear it. Because there's mystery about how it works, we think it's powerful enough to destroy us.

It's a little hard to believe this mentality is still prevalent in the middle of the 1990s. But as advances continue to emerge, everyday cyber-phobes begin to organize a ``counter-revolution.'' But their chances of success against the popularity of technology aren't very good. They seem to be fighting against an inevitable future.

As construction nears completion on the information superhighway, there is a growing anxiety about the role of human beings in this increasingly technological world. But the role of human beings isn't changing -- just the amount of equipment we have around the house.

Maybe it's because I come from a generation that grew up alongside the personal computer that I'm able to see them as mostly harmless. I believe that the digital revolution will do much more to improve communication and interaction in our world than it will do to destroy it. With technology that creates instantaneous communication all over the world already in existence, you can see the enormous benefits and possibilities. You can develop relationships with people you never would have been able to meet before. You can get first-hand knowledge of other cultures and other ways of life.

Add to all of this the infinite possibilities of creative and artistic expression, and the cyber-world starts looking like a place you just might want to visit.

Change is always scary.

But I think it's too easy to use the computer as a scapegoat for all of our societies' problems. The more familiar you become with the technology, the more you're able to recognize it as a tool rather than as a destructive monster.

Amy Ettinger, 20, lives in Santa Cruz. ``Our So-Called Lives'' is a weekly feature of the Living section that offers young writers' views on life in the '90s. Write to any of the ``Lives'' writers in care of the Living section, San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190. Fax: (408) 271-5786. Published 3/13/95 in the San Jose Mercury News. This material is copyrighted and may not be republished without permission of the originating newspaper or wire service. NewsHound is a service of the San Jose Mercury News. For more information call 1-800-818-NEWS.