THE WORLD INSIDE THE COMPUTER
How To Get Intimate With Your Computer
Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor
Fred D'lgnazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. His books include Katie and the Computer (Creative Computing), Chip Mitchell: The Case of the Stolen Computer Brains (Dutton/Lodestar), The Star Wars Question and Answer Book About Computers (Random House), and How To Get Intimate With Your Computer (A 10-Step Plan To Conquer Computer Anxiety) (McGraw-Hill).
As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device. His column appears monthly in COMPUTE!.
In my September column I proposed that we move beyond computer literacy – to computer intimacy. I have done some thinking since then, and I have concluded that we shouldn't abandon our push for computer literacy, especially among young people. But we should encourage computer intimacy before computer literacy.
Computer Intimacy First
If you are intimate with your computer you are comfortable, cozy, even attached to it. You know enough to put the computer to work, but you don't have to know how it works. Computer intimacy is a totally new relationship between people and computers, one made possible by the new developments in computer hardware and, especially, software. Once we are intimate with our computers, many of us will also want to become computer literate. But not all of us. Nor will we need to.
Many adults envy children's relations with computers. The myth is that children are computer whizzes, that they are computer literate. But this is untrue. Most children are no more computer literate than most adults. What they are is computer intimate. They like computers. They have a warm, affectionate, and playful relationship with computers. They don't fear computers. They aren't overawed. To them the computer is just a snazzy appliance or toy, a cross between the TV set, the typewriter, the piano, and building blocks.
Children move rapidly toward computer literacy because they become intimate with computers first. This is the same path adults should follow. Adult computer courses make the mistake of skipping the intimacy part and moving right into computer literacy. But, in most circumstances, this strips computers of all their fun.
The first impression the average adult has of a computer is just as he or she imagined: the computer is technical, dry, and complicated. Adults know that it is for their own good to become computer literate, but that doesn't mean they want to. No wonder the adults look enviously at the children. The children look like they are having fun. For them, learning about computers is exciting, hilarious, and very rewarding.
But why should children have all the fun? For many adults, computer literacy is a huge roadblock that separates them from learning more about computers. We should clear away this roadblock and start adults in the right direction, and introduce them to programs modeled after children's programs, programs that promote computer intimacy.
Establishing A Balance
In the job market of the 1990s and the twenty-first century, very few people will be computer literate, if by literacy we mean having the ability to create real, nontrivial computer programs. Yet most people will need to be computer intimate. They will need to be able to work with computers – confidently, comfortably, efficiently, and sometimes even joyously.
But this doesn't mean we should abandon computer literacy. Computer literacy is not just a technical skill for a few mechanics and specialists. It is a doorway that many should enter. Then they can begin using the computer to its fullest potential. For people who are computer intimate and literate, the computer can become a medium for self expression, a "new age" culture for creativity and communication, and an environment for invention.
Children, especially, should be encouraged to move beyond computer intimacy to a higher level of computer literacy (appropriate to the sophisticated software tools that will be running on computers of the future). Many will not want to go, and they shouldn't be forced. They will not need to be computer literate to live happy, productive lives in the future. Computer intimacy will suffice.
However, as a social goal, computer intimacy is not enough, not if our culture is to keep evolving, changing, and responding to the challenges of the present and the future.
The Magician's Top Hat
How do we see computers? Today most children and more and more adults see computers as a magician's top hat. All the new software cartridges, disks, and tapes are stuffed inside the hat, like white doves, flaming scarves, brilliant-colored parrots, and soft, fuzzy bunnies. You can reach into the computer "hat" and pull out almost anything you can imagine – word processors, adventure games, file managers, video paintkits, turtles, and electronic pianos.
And the software industry is growing like a colony of healthy bacteria. In the future we will be able to pull a thousand times as much out of the magic hat.
But what fuels the software industry? What is its source of dynamic power and energy?
Computer literacy. Not among a handful of computer scientists and experts, but spread across millions of computers and millions of users. Computer literacy is the training ground for computer invention. And computer invention makes computer intimacy possible – at higher and higher levels.
Mass-produced microcomputers and increasingly sophisticated software tools have unleashed the imaginations and enlivened the ambitions of an army of youthful, would-be inventors. The inventors are firing off their software inventions like fish launched from a host of catapults mounted on canoes rushing down a swiftly moving river.
Millions Of Computer Inventors
The personal computer is more than a magician's hat. It is also a miniature toolshed, workshop, or laboratory. And as personal computers become less isolated, and enable their users to communicate with each other, they will become a roundtable, a forum for people to bounce ideas off each other and then implement those ideas, jointly, as new computer software.
Computer literacy – appropriate to new, higher-level computer tools – is needed in the future, not just among a few experts but among thousands and millions of young inventors with fresh ideas and with the energy and self-confidence to turn them into computer inventions. And computer inventions will be woven into the fabric of our economy, our society, and our lives.
So computer literacy is necessary. All children should get a crack at becoming computer literate, at the youngest possible age.
Yet computer literacy still does not come first. Computer intimacy comes first, especially for the majority of adults who are scared to death of computers, yet realize that computers are the wave of the future. The strident cries for universal computer literacy only increase these adults' fears. For these adults, computer literacy is not the answer – at least not yet.
A New Religion
Computers are powerful new machines, so powerful that they are treated by many people as a new "religion." Computer enthusiasts are the evangelists for this religion, and they are winning converts by the millions.
Most adults, however, have mixed feelings about computers. They see computers for what they are. Computers are valuable tools and servants, but they are not the most important thing in life. Computers are not an end. They are merely a means to more important, human-defined ends.
Also, computers, like any other powerful and pervasive technology, are valueless in themselves. Whether their impact is good or evil depends on how they are used.
Most adults have a very healthy skepticism and distrust of computers, especially when the "true believers" market them as a necessity and tout them as a new religion.
Most adults do not need a startling plunge into the icy waters of computer literacy. First they need to get their feet wet. They need to follow in their children's footsteps. They need to play with computers, learn with computers, and have fun.
See "On The Road," page 140, for part 2 of "How To Get Intimate With Your Computer."