Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 42 / NOVEMBER 1983 / PAGE 140

On The Road With Fred D'Ignazio

How To Get Intimate With Your Computer

Part 2

Closer To Home

After my whirlwind travels across the United States and England, I'd like to take a break for a month and look at an important issue that is closer to home.

Elsewhere in this issue (in my "The World Inside The Computer" column) I begin a discussion about the difference between computer literacy and computer intimacy. I'd like to continue that discussion in this column.

Let's look at the myths that make adults so anxious and fearful about computers. We'll see how most adults who want to know more about computers should become intimate with computers before they try to become computer literate.

The Myth Of The Klutzy Adult

A pervasive and pernicious myth is being spread unthinkingly throughout our society. The myth is that our children are whizzes with computers, but we adults are klutzes. This myth is almost completely ungrounded in fact. Why are children so good with computers? They are good because they see only the colorful, musical, exciting side of computers. The first time they meet a computer, it is wearing a smile.

Children are spurred to master computers because they are so attractive. When we adults see this side of computers, we, too, can master computers just as fast, just as happily as our children.

Trust Your Feelings

What is computer intimacy? What is intimacy? Intimacy is a gut feeling. You know you have become intimate with your computer when you are totally comfortable and relaxed with it, when using it becomes a pleasure rather than a chore, and when you develop excuses just to spend more time with it. When you begin to think your computer is lovable, that's when you know the two of you are becoming intimate.

Getting to know a computer can be like getting to know an attractive yet intimidating member of the opposite sex. I think there is a great similarity between my first experiences with girls and dating, and the average person's first experience with computers. When the average person first looks at computers, he or she feels the same sense of fear and anxiety that I felt when I gazed across the gymnasium floor at the girls clustered on the opposite side of the room. That was my first school dance. Computers evoke the same sense of shyness, yet they can also be tremendously attractive, even seductive.

A New Love Affair

For almost 75 years, Americans have had a love affair with their cars. Computers will soon be like cars. Like cars, they will remain machines, and our servants, yet they will also have an emotional, gut-level appeal that will turn people on and bind them to them.

The kind of car we drive depends on the kind of person we are or would like to be. Our car's appearance, model, and year often accurately reflect our values and the kind of image we want to project to our fellow human beings. Cars project all sorts of images. They can be inconspicuous, efficient, and sedate, or they can be clunky ragamuffins. They can be flamboyant, garish, and ostentatious, or they can be sensual and adventurous.

Computers, too, will soon reflect our lifestyles, values, and self-image. They will also reflect our needs. Like cars, computers will come with model names pulled from the animal kingdom. Depending on our needs, we'll buy a Cobra (fast as lightning), or a Hippopotamus (it digests huge quantities of information), the St. Bernard (it saves your life in tight situations), the Peacock (it really struts its stuff), or the Donkey (slow and stubborn, but real dependable).

Computers, like cars, can evoke a passionate attachment, a rush of affection. But to inspire real intimacy they must throb to life at the turn of a key, and they must get us where we're going - the faster the better.

A computer can be seductive and lovable, but it is not an end in itself. Many people can get excited about a computer for its own sake. Many more, however, can get excited about using a computer to have fun, get work done, and communicate with other people.

In the future, computers will promise even more than they do today. But let's make sure they keep those promises.

More Than Tools

Computers are only machines, but they are more than tools. A hammer is a tool. So is a broom. But can you get intimate with a hammer or a broom? Not easily. Yet it's easy to get intimate with a computer, because computers are more than work-horses and tools. Computers obey our commands. They carry on conversations. They listen to us. They are infinitely patient. They can be friendly, playful, even silly.

Friendly computers? Playful computers? Silly computers? Where do you find them? Just ask a child. Children love computers because they use computers to learn and have fun. But why can't adults learn on computers, too? And why should kids have all the fun? Adults who peek over kids' shoulders at their programs find that the programs are challenging, enjoyable, and enlightening. Adults can use these programs, overcome their fears about computers, and relieve their computer anxiety. Adults can get to be just as good with computers as kids, and they can have just as much fun.

Computers That Frown And Look Mean

Most adults still think that computers are dry, cold, and unfriendly. No wonder! Most computers in the past were number crunchers, bill collectors, and tax watchdogs. Even today's computers, in their heart of hearts, do nothing more than juggle ones and zeros. But computers don't have to be technical and boring. They can be funny–if you just add people. The relationship between computers and people is often hilarious, if we keep a sense of humor. It pays to look at the lighter side of this relationship, and if we do, we find it helps to break down the barrier of fear separating us from the computer.

Coming Out Of The Closet

In recent years all sorts of groups have come out of the closet and have honestly revealed who they are and what they stand for. It's time that computer lovers do the same.

As a person who is on extremely intimate terms with his computer (it follows me into my bathroom and into my bed), I'd like to confess here and now one of the most closely guarded secrets of our relationship:

My relationship with computers is not rational.

This is a shocking revelation, but it is true. My relationship with my computers is emotional, quirky, and antic. It is infuriating, enlightening, and silly. It is happy, frustrating, and ecstatic. But it is rarely rational. And I contend that this is true throughout our society among the millions of computers and computer users. A rational relationship between a human being and a computer is the exception rather than the rule.

Take today. My assistant and I were working on a personal computer. We were sailing along, turning out letters, articles, and forms at a swift, productive pace. The world looked bright, and we were happy.

Then disaster struck. The computer made a mistake. The computer's mistake was only a little one. It wouldn't save any of our text files on disk so that we could print them out on the computer printer.

Until it made its mistake, the computer had been behaving itself. I felt very close to the computer and was extremely fond of it.

After the computer made its mistake, I had a change in heart. No matter what I did, the computer wouldn't save or print my files. So I hated the computer. I called it names. I threatened to walk out on it, abandon it, put it up for adoption.

Now I ask you, does this sound like a rational relationship?

A rational relationship must have at least two parties who are rational. First we look at the first partner–the human being. Occasionally, philosophers have proposed that humans are rational, but most of us know otherwise.

Next let's look at computers. This is more of a problem. Computers are incredibly complex machines, composed of millions of interacting circuits and thousands upon thousands of operating instructions, rules, and conditions. Computers are too complex to be simple, too complex to be totally rational.

Nevertheless, people think they are rational. For example, the popular wisdom now contains two catchy phrases that most people unquestioningly believe:

First: Computers don't make mistakes. Only people make mistakes.

Second: Computers do only what you tell them to.

As I mentioned, I am extremely intimate with computers. Since I am in this privileged position (along with two or three million children), you would think that I would be able to see through the popular wisdom and realize that the two catchy phrases above are pure hogwash–myths and nothing more.

Alas! I am as much a victim of these myths as the next human being, at least when I am working with my assistant. Whenever anything goes wrong while she is using the computer, whenever the computer acts strange, whom do I blame? Why, her, of course.

Take the other day. I was upstairs in my study and Darshi, my assistant, was downstairs in the office. All of a sudden, she yelled, "Fred! Come quick! The computer's going crazy!"

Sure enough, the cursor was rolling across the screen wiping out the words almost like Ms. Pac-Man rushing around devouring dots. I pushed every button on the keyboard, but nothing worked. The cursor was determined to eat the whole file.

Finally, in desperation, I turned off the computer. Then I turned toward Darshi. "What did you do?" I said, in a not very friendly voice. "The computer was fine just a few minutes ago. You must have done something to mess it up."

Sadly, this was the last thing Darshi needed to hear. She was already extremely timid around the computer and afraid that the next button she typed might blow the computer up. When I accused her of her worst fear, she looked ill and ran out of the office.

Why had I blamed Darshi? I blamed her because she was a beginning user and a human being. Those two facts alone were enough evidence to convict her.

Sometimes computers are agreeable, responsive, and meek. They do everything you tell them to. But then, a moment later, without any warning, they turn on you. They suffer amnesia. They pout and get sullen and write gobbledygook all over your lovely files. Or they act crazy and start doing awful things like eating up the words on your picture screen. And they get out of control. Then the only way to get their attention is to switch off their power. This, of course, is an undesirable and drastic solution. But, sometimes, it's the only way to make them come to their senses.

A Little Breathing Room

When you are in the middle of a squabble with your computer, it doesn't seem very funny. However, after things have quieted down, and you look back, you might be able to put things into perspective, and maybe even laugh about them.

But one thing you should not do is pretend that you and your computer have a rational relationship. It is anything but that. It may be quiet, sedate, and low key. Or it might be wild and boisterous. But it is not rational. It can't be. You're not rational. The computer's not rational. So how can your relationship be rational?

The sooner people stop looking at their relationship with computers as rational, the sooner they will become intimate with computers and learn to accept them for what they are. Computers are moody and complex creatures. But they try hard to please you. They really do.