TWILIGHT OF THE
Fred D'Ignazio, author of the popular COMPUTE! column, "The World Inside The Computer," begins a second column this month called "On The Road." He will travel around the country visiting user groups, workshops, seminars, conventions, or anywhere else computers are having an impact on everyday life.
This month I begin a new column.
My assignment: To go on the road, living the life of a carefree wanderer; to seek out computers and people; to write about the good things or the bad things - whatever I find.
The Twilight Of The Hacker
My first journeys as a gypsy computer reporter were brief and confined to my home city of Roanoke.
The first place I visited was the monthly meeting of the Roanoke Area Computer Enthusiasts (RACE). The meeting was held on a weekday evening in the Roanoke Valley Science Museum. I went to the meeting with great enthusiasm because several members planned to demonstrate a full-blown VIC-20 system (it occupied almost half the table). I especially wanted to see the demonstration because I will soon be writing a "kids and computers" column on the VIC-20 (and Commodore 64) in the new COMPUTE!'s Gazette for Commodore magazine.
The VIC-20 demonstration went fine. And we were also treated to a detailed description of RACE's current project - a homebrew computer modem. But what really impressed me was the club itself and the people who formed it. The club was small, old, almost exclusively male, and made up of computer hackers, people who enjoy rolling up their sleeves and diving into the bits, bytes, chips, and circuit boards that make up the average computer.
The evening was solid technically, and the people were all very nice, but I left the meeting feeling a little drained and lethargic. The club members called themselves "enthusiasts," but where was their enthusiasm?
Computer "hackers" were the pioneers of microcomputing. They were the enthusiasts - the zealots, even - who got this industry started, in the 1960s and the 1970s. Now we're in the mid1980s, and what has happened to the hackers? They're the computer elders who are being shoved aside by a stampeding horde of new personal computer users who seem to share none of their characteristics.
Enter The Computer Humanists
What are these new personal computer users like?
To find out, I went to two recent events - the Computer Faire the following Saturday and Sunday at the science museum; and the "Computers in the Schools" conference at Hollins College, just outside Roanoke.
The best way to describe the new personal computer users is to say that they are the kind of crowd you'd find at a Roanoke bowling alley on a Friday night - only more diverse. There are a lot of them. And they are young, old, and in between. There are lots of women and lots of kids.
The new personal computer users talk funny, almost like regular people. You don't hear a lot about bits and bytes. Instead, you hear about computer model numbers. And computer components. And computer software. Most of the discussion centers on who has what piece of new software for which machine, and how it's the "neatest thing you've ever seen."
Another thing that distinguishes this new group from the old-line hackers is their energy. Everyone is so excited. Parents are excited about bringing all the new educational programs into their homes. Kids are excited about the games. Teachers are excited about the ways they can use the computers in their classrooms. I sensed some fear and anxiety in this group, too - a certain tentativeness about really moving into this strange new world. But mostly I sensed excitement - a lot of it.
And the questions. Here is where the computer hackers and humanists diverged completely. The hackers asked how soldering on certain boards is done and about which section of memory is switch selectable. The humanists asked how computers for very young kids would alter the way kids develop their fine motor skills and the way that they get along with other people.
For example, I conducted a workshop at Hollins College on "Computer Literature." During the workshop a man raised his hand and said, "I am an artist and a teacher. I teach elementary school children how to paint and draw. If little children learn to paint beautiful pictures on a computer just by pressing a couple of buttons, how will they ever learn to draw on paper?"
How do you answer a question like that? I didn't try, but other people in my workshop did. One woman, an elementary school teacher, said, "Who cares if they draw on paper? In the future, no one will be using paper. They will be using TV screens for everything. They are the new medium for creative expression, not paper. Kids have to learn how to do this to be prepared."
Another teacher disagreed. "If kids only learn how to push buttons," she said, "they'll never develop their bodies. Their gross and fine motor skills will never be developed. These skills are crucial to a child's becoming an adult."
Another teacher added, "And what about the pleasure children have using art materials? Children who only work with TV screens and plastic buttons will never know the joy of using gooey fingerpaints, and clay, and paste, and making cutouts out of construction paper. It doesn't sound modern to me, it sounds deprived."
Jiminy Cricket The Computer
During the workshop, I told the teachers about my concept of the "Computer Friend." I said that I thought all personal computers would one day assume human-like qualities and become intimate friends of their human masters.
One teacher applauded this prospect. "This will be a boon for human relations," she said. "It will let everyone, especially family members and young people, work out their feelings first with their computer. If something is troubling them, they don't have to keep it bottled up inside them. They can tell their computer friend. Then, after the matter is aired, they understand it more clearly, and they feel better about it and can approach members of their families and other human beings. A lot of situations are like powder kegs, ready to go off. Maybe the computer friend will help defuse them."
This point of view was echoed by another member of the workshop, who said she thought the computer friend might be like Pinocchio's friend Jiminy Cricket. The friend could be a person's conscience. The friend would hear a person's deepest secrets, his darkest and most whimsical fantasies and wishes.
At this point, two teenage girls raised their hands. "All this sounds dangerous to me," one of the girls said. "If computers are so friendly, they might lure people away from interacting with each other."
"She's right," said the other girl. "How can a human being be as patient as a computer friend? How can a person give another person their undivided attention the way a computer friend can?"
"And what about babies and toddlers?" added a woman teacher. "They may learn early in their lives to relate to a computer friend. But the friend may become a substitute for other people. This could stunt a child's ability to get along with people around her. Her earliest model for socialization wouldn't be a person, it would be a computer."
Computer Intimacy Vs. Computer Literacy
In one of our workshop discussions, I questioned the big focus on computer literacy. I said that computer literacy was fine now while we were still in an age of transition from a non-computerized society to a completely computerized society. In the future, however, when people have fully accepted computers and when computer technology has matured, we will move beyond computer literacy into computer intimacy.
I compared my audience to computer hackers, and said that it was obvious that the change from literacy to intimacy was already occurring. People were worrying less how computers worked and more how to "drive" computers the way they might drive an automobile. Also, they were showing concern about the impact of such a powerful technology on their lives, their students' lives, and the lives of their children. I likened introducing a computer into people's lives to sitting behind the wheel of a powerful race car. The car can take you places at breathtaking speeds, but, if mishandled, it can maim and ruin.
Computers are not a technology of the body but a technology of the mind. As carriers, amplifiers, and multipliers of symbols, concepts, and ideas, they are far more powerful than automobiles. Whether they cause us to benefit or suffer depends on how we use them.