In cyberspace, I can hear the addicts scream

Here is the latest news from Planet Bonkers: in order to encourage children to become involved in the 2012 Olympics, a computer simulation of running round a track is being sent to schools. The ultimate in sport for all (it is so inclusive that children will not even have to move off their obese behinds in order to take part), the game is being presented as an educational opportunity. “Offering pupils the chance to run in a ‘virtual’ stadium will help fire up their imaginations, and hopefully inspire children to greater things,” one local councillor in East Anglia has said.

So it is true. Not only are there people who still believe that sitting in front of a screen and pretending to do something will stimulate a desire for the real thing, but they are in positions of power and influence. Taxpayers’ money is being spent on this lunacy.

Surely by now it has become clear that interaction with a computer leads not to action but only to more interaction with a computer. Games and simulations are specifically designed to exploit some popular fantasy – playing golf or a musical instrument, scoring goals in the Premiership, killing terrorists, winning an Olympic gold medal – and then to gratify the user without their needing any training, study, fitness, social skills or effort beyond what it takes to twiddle a remote control.

Solitary, solipsistic and digital, playing on a computer is a masturbatory activity which allows completion but never satisfaction. It works its corrupting effect in the same way as pornography does. Beside the fantasy on screen, real life, which involves work, patience and disappointment, becomes messy, complex and unattractive.

Far from encouraging children to become athletes, the couch-potato version of Olympic competition will actually make it less likely that they will want to train on a real track. Why should they, if they can win a gold medal by staring at a monitor and wiggling their thumbs?

Everywhere one looks, the seductive little screen is being allowed to replace reality with a virtual substitute. “Had enough of city life?” asks FarmVille, the latest computer fad which currently has 69 million people in its thrall. “Here at FarmVille, we’re growing crops, tending to our animals and building out our farms. It’s a simple life, but there ain’t nothing like seeing your farm grow … C’mon down to FarmVille, and start your farm today.”

They are certainly right about the simple life. The look and soundtrack of the game seem to have been created for young children, yet adults are utterly hooked on it. One user has said it reminds her of her childhood. Another found it soothing. It was satisfying to grow crops, plant hedges and rear hens, she said.

It is at this point that the computer revolution becomes scary. There are addiction centres for those unable to tear themselves away from games. Some people spend up to eight hours a day playing them.

The problem, though, is not just the grim infantilisation of adults, the moronic waste of time. Those who derive satisfaction from a fantasy computer-generated landscape will be utterly indifferent to the real one. Indeed, if hedges, crops and hens need to be removed for a shopping precinct full of computer shops, the games-players will cheerfully agree.

Simulation on a screen does not inspire action or experience but replaces reality with a corrupt, easy substitute, adding new levels of alienation to an anxious, dissatisfied culture.

Jungle drums beat louder over ‘Ratgate’ affair

Belatedly, something interesting has emerged from the latest round of televison reality shows. A small row has developed around the killing and cooking of a rat by Gino D’Acampo and Stuart Manning, two of the contestants in ITV’s jungle show I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! The RSPCA has protested. ITV has apologised. Criminal charges may apparently be brought against the rat-eaters.

There are certain inconsistencies here. Because humans have an aversion to rats, the normal rules concerning our treatment of animals are suspended when it comes to these peculiarly interesting mammals. The most tender-hearted animal-lover will scream for them to be killed if they appear unexpectedly. Only rats can be hunted quite legally with dogs. They are most commonly killed by slow poisoning, an incomparably nastier and more agonising end than being eaten by a couple of minor celebrities.

Then there is the fact that the show itself is a showcase for ignorance about and unkindness towards living creatures. Live grubs and insects are regularly consumed in front of the cameras for the pleasure of viewers. The final hypocrisy involves a debate as to whether the late rodent was domestic or wild. Mysteriously, its death is deemed to be more heinous if it were a pet rat. An entertaining mini-scandal, “Ratgate” has at least revealed the full muddle which now surrounds human attitudes towards animals.

If killing a rat for consumption is an indictable offence, one might ask where that leaves the billions of cows, sheep and hens slaughtered on our behalf every day.

History repeats itself. Just ask Lord Archer

Amid all the talk about which public figure best exemplifies the past decade, there has been an unwelcome time warp feel to the news of the past few days. Suddenly, it seems, the heavyweight personalities of the 1980s are back. Nigel Lawson may look thinner and older but he still has the air of a man who is in possession of ominous news for everyone else but him.

Then there are two figures who, in spite of the knocks they have received and the changes to the world around them, have been delivering pretty much the same message as they were 20 years ago. Sir Richard Branson is promising space tourism, again. Jeffrey Archer is being paid an obscene amount of money for future books and is comparing himself to Galsworthy, again.

How strange it all is. The climate may change, energy may be in crisis, and publishing might be in decline. But for those with a thick enough skin and a familiar story to sell, history will go on repeating itself.