The rebels among them—the ones we used to call class clowns, greasers or punks—are hackers today. Hackers delight in breaking into other people's computers over telephone wires, and this year they did a lot of it, making headlines for snooping in the machines at the Los Alamos nuclear lab, the secretive Rand Corp., the Security Pacific National Bank in L.A. and more. One 19-year-old college student poked his nose into 14 computers through a U.S. Department of Defense network, allegedly doing $200,000 worth of damage before he was arrested last month. The news made it all sound vaguely exciting, the stuff of which screenplays are made (namely, the movie War-Games and the TV series Whiz Kids).
But if you think all this is exciting, think again. Hacking is about as adrenaline-producing as balancing a checkbook. These kids were not called nerds for nothing. To break into computers, hackers have to spend hours on telephone lines tediously typing in arcane numbers and letters—codes like "C40810" and passwords like "TEST-TEST"—as the big machines blink back statements such as "ILLEGAL ADDRESS" and "UNRECOGNIZED HOST." This is their idea of fun?
This is a very dull generation.
These crazed kids of the computer era aren't playing stickball, going on panty raids or marching against wars, the things that used to be fun. They're noodling with their computers, alone, at all hours, staring at TV screens that have no sex or violence.
Not all of the microkids are mischievous hackers, nor are all geniuses. But many are addicted to computers. There is something magical and alluring about these machines; they do what you tell them to, they challenge you and they can be fascinating. No, they do not seem human—though they do seem smarter than a dog. The idea that a computer could replace a pooch as a boy's best friend is frightening. Still, it's better that kids are addicted to computers than to drugs.
So what kind of kids are computers raising? And what will the future be like in their hands? Different, in many ways, good and bad, trivial and profound. For instance:
•Computers are logical and consistent. If they don't work, there's always a solution, whether it's complicated or simple. Example: If the computer doesn't print, it may be because you told it to "PFINT"; you'll have to find the typo and you will, if you look hard enough. That's what makes playing with these machines so rewarding: They tell you whether you're right or wrong and, in the end, you're always right. If computers make kids more logical and persistent, so much the better.
The problem is that the world is not such a logical and rational place; anybody in politics or in corporations or in love can tell you that. And you only have to look to Beirut to know that there are not always easy solutions. So the kid who sits inside with his machine is not learning the shadings and subtleties of the world outside.
•Communing with a computer is, like reading in the bathroom, best done alone. A computer addict has little time for people, doesn't get outside much and never gets a good tan.
Computer kids aren't necessarily lonely, though, for they have their machines to play with. These kids may be boring, but they're rarely bored.
•You can make friends—human ones—through a computer, hooking your machine into a nationwide network of machines. To meet people this way, you type messages back and forth, so you can't see whether your new friend is black or white, pretty or ugly, young or old. Maybe that's for the best. It's harder to discriminate on the computer.
So far, it's mainly men who are involved in computers—more than 90 percent of the members of CompuServe, a computer information network, are male. Still, love bridges all things, even computers. Through CompuServe, a half-dozen couples have met and courted. Some even got married.
•On similar computer networks, you can, today, check the stock market, make airline reservations, order color TV sets, even pay bills. So the computer kids will be deprived of telling one of the world's great lies: "The check's in the mail." They'll have a new one: "My computer was down."
•Computers, we already know, can make it possible to work at home. That could be more than just convenient. It could change life in America. If workers are freed of time-consuming meetings and long lunches, the economy (if not two-martini restaurants) could boom. And by keeping these kids home—something preachers have been trying to do for years—computers could strengthen the American family.
•Computers demand precision, but that doesn't mean they stunt imagination; you'll find plenty of it in the computer games these kids invent and play. And the computer as a tool can unleash creativity by reducing tedium for writers, designers and artists; a poet, for instance, can change "June" to "moon" to "croon" to his heart's content, without ever having to retype his work.
•But some basic skills are falling by the wayside: long division, multiplication and spelling, to name a vital few. Computers do those things for you.
•You at least have to know how to type to use a computer. But that skill, too, will fall away as machines get better at listening to the spoken word.
•It's not as if kids without these skills will go without work. There's big money in computers. If The Graduate were made today, the advice whispered to Dustin Hoffman would not be "plastics"; it would be "software."
•A computer stretches time. You can get so engrossed in playing with it that you lose track of hours; a computer can keep you up later than any late-night movie. Unlike a friend or a plumber, a computer is just as happy to play with you or serve you at 2 a.m. as 2 p.m.
•A computer also shrinks time. Unlike the mails, which take days to get something to you, a computer can deliver a message in a twinkling. Because of that, computer people can be very impatient. They call a printer that spits out 35 characters per second slow. If they think that's slow, imagine how patient they'll be waiting for luggage off an airplane.
•You may discover that it's hard to understand what these high-tech teens are talking about today. But that's nothing new; teenagers have always spoken in argot. Instead of saying "far-out" or "cool" or "cat's meow," the kids today say "sysgen" and "bdos" and "8088."
That's really the problem. Nowadays there's no more of a generation gap than there ever was. But there is a tech gap. Computer kids are cultists. Like an est graduate or a Moonie or a Jesus freak, they insist that you can't understand their devotion until you try it yourself.
Who are they kidding? Learn how to work a computer? Adults can't learn that—or at least some don't think they can. Computers are, as satirist songwriter Tom Lehrer once said of New Math, "so simple, so very simple that only a child can do it."
Grownups, many of them, are feeling left behind as computers creep into every corner of their lives, almost taking over the world. But it's not the computers that are taking over the world. It's the kids.
The children of the microchip age are growing up. They're teenagers now, sprouting new bodies, beards and bravado, as teens always have. But these kids are different, truly different. Why? Because they have computers.