Stephen Fry: The Internet and Me

Stephen Fry

I quite enjoyed reading this article by Stephen Fry on the BBC News website (even though it is 18 months old) when I found it for the first time.

Stephen Fry – wit, writer, raconteur, actor and quiz show host – is also a self-confessed dweeb and meistergeek. As he confesses “If I added up all the hours I’ve sat watching a progress bar fill up, I could live another life.”

One of the main reasons I like it is one particular quote that I have used time and time again in meetings.

This is an early thing I said about the internet at the time things like AOL were still huge. I said it’s Milton Keynes, that’s the problem with it. It’s got all these nice, safe cycle paths and child-friendly parks and all the rest of it.

But the internet is a city and, like any great city, it has monumental libraries and theatres and museums and places in which you can learn and pick up information and there are facilities for you that are astounding – specialised museums, not just general ones.

But there are also slums and there are red light districts and there are really sleazy areas where you wouldn’t want your children wandering alone.

And you say, “But how do I know which shops are selling good gear in the city and how do I know which are bad? How do I know which streets are safe and how do I know which aren’t?” Well you find out.

What you don’t need is a huge authority or a series of identity cards and police escorts to take you round the city because you can’t be trusted to do it yourself or for your children to do it.

And I think people must understand that about the internet – it is a new city, it’s a virtual city and there will be parts of it of course that they dislike, but you don’t pull down London because it’s got a red light district.

For me this is a nice analogy of how institutions should look at the internet when thinking about their learners. It’s not about closing off the city to our learners. It’s much more about informing and making learners aware not just of the benefits of the city and the wonderful places that can be seen, but also that there are places in the city they may want to avoid.

When I was teaching European Studies many years ago, we took a group of students to Amsterdam to look at European culture. There are some wonderful things to see in Amsterdam, however myself and my colleagues made sure we were just as aware of the “not so nice” places to ensure that we could provide the right information and advice to our learners.

There is of course those learners who will ignore you and go where they shouldn’t (and this also happened on our trip to Amsterdam) and the key here is to ensure that those learners know what to do and to whom they should seek help and support if they do decide to ignore the advice and venture into the sleazy areas.

The internet has many wonderful sites, tools and services. In my opinion an institution needs to provide the right guidance and advice (digital literacy and information literacy) to our learners to make sure that they can make the most of and find the best of what the internet has to offer. They also have a duty of care to inform learners about the less desirable areas of the internet and how to deal with those parts too.

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