Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 48 / MAY 1984 / PAGE 132

On The Road With Fred D'Ignazio

The Morning After:

Anti-Computer Backlash And The Arrival Of The Mass-Market Home Computer

Part 1

This is the text of the speech Fred delivered at the West Coast Computer Faire in late March. We are printing the speech in two parts.

We are at a watershed in home computing. The watershed has been caused by the computer price wars of 1983, the introduction of simple and inexpensive, yet powerful, new computer programs and peripherals, and the entry of IBM into the home computer market.

Over the next year, home computing users, vendors, and enthusiasts will divide into two major camps: the computer intimates and the computer literates. By the end of 1986 these two groups will have fused into a third camp: the neo-programmers, who will represent the bulk of the users of home computers through the next decade.

Literates Vs. Intimates

Hackers, computer professionals, old-line computer educators, programming teenagers, and computer hobbyists will make up the bulk of computer literates. Computer literates will stress the importance of learning how to program and learning how computers work. The computer itself will continue to be the prime concern of this group.

Computer intimates will far outnumber the computer literates. Computer intimates will consist of all the millions of Americans who were roped or forced into using computers and who demand that they be easier to use and more practical.

Computer intimates will believe that software and computer input devices are far more important than the computer itself. As a group they will preach ignorance of computer programming and ignorance of the computer's insides as virtues. The motto of the computer intimates will be: "You don't have to know how a computer works, only how to make it do work for you."

The Computer Freight Train

On December 6, 1983,1 appeared on ABC's Good Morning America TV show as a computer expert. My task was to advise families on the type of computer they should purchase for Christmas. In less than seven and a half minutes I led the show's viewers and its two hosts, David Hartman and Joan Lunden, through a bewildering array of computer hardware and computer programs.

I am sure that when the segment was over, most viewers still couldn't tell the difference between a disk drive, a program recorder, or a touch pad. But I'll wager that they did have a better feeling for the risk involved in investing in a personal computer, for the daunting complexity of becoming a first-time user, and for the flood of computer products and the dearth of reliable guidelines for making a purchase.

"Most consumers see personal computers as a high-speed freight train," I told viewers. "They feel they have to take the risk of hopping on now, or they feel they will be run over or left behind."

The Hottest Thing Under The Christmas Tree

More computers were sold as Christmas gifts this year than in any year prior to 1983. By early 1984 over eight million Americans had personal computers.

Unfortunately, soon after Christmas, many of these Americans began suffering from "morning after" regrets and resentments. Too many Americans who had seen the slick commercials on TV and who had heard the daily press reports about the computer revolution were now wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

Most Americans have heard the word software but have only a vague idea what the word means. They have no understanding of what comprises a "complete" computer system. They have no appreciation of what operating or programming a computer entails.

Most Americans don't even know how to hook up a computer's cables, plug it in, or turn it off. I know of one family who finally turned their computer off at one in the morning, but who only did so after hours of agonized, fruitless searching of the manual. They were afraid they might break the computer if they turned it off the wrong way.

The Computer Kit

Why do people buy computers? Most Americans buy computers out of curiosity, for their work, to play games, or as an educational aid and tool for their children.

Most Americans buy computers at bargain-basement prices, usually at discount houses. Most Americans get their basic knowledge about computers from news stories and TV commercials.

When a person buys a computer, he thinks he has bought something equivalent to what he has seen on TV. He expects his computer to be able to do roughly the same things as the TV computer.

The average new-computer purchaser brings his computer home, struggles with the manuals, cables, and plugs, and finally powers the computer up. After all this effort, what does he get?

A blank screen.

After still more struggling with his manual, the astute newcomer finally realizes that what he has bought is a kit—like a bicycle or a puzzle that comes in a million pieces. Only it's worse. The kit's pieces are invisible. You don't get to see them until they appear on the computer's display screen after you have typed them in at the keyboard.

The pieces, of course, are the commands in the computer's BASIC programming language. Computer commands are more difficult to use than puzzle pieces for two reasons. First, puzzle pieces are combined in some sort of visual order to make up a picture. Second, pieces in a puzzle can usually be combined in only one way. And the picture fragment on each piece is a clue to where the piece belongs.

But computer commands are different. They carry no picture fragment that helps you see where in a picture (or a program) they belong. And they can be combined in an infinite number of ways. There is no set order to reach any given solution.

Most kits—for a bicycle, a lawn chair, a toaster oven, a sandbox, or swing set—come with explicit, printed directions. Computer kits don't usually come with printed directions. Instead, they come with a dictionary of commands organized, alphabetically, from A to Z. You get all the building blocks, but little or no help in how to put them together. And, before long, you realize, with a sinking feeling, that they can be put together in a million ways.

But where do you start?

Buying Half A Computer

It finally dawns on the consumer that what he has bought is only half a computer. Until he buys some software and some more equipment—a program recorder or disk drive, cassettes, disks, cartridges, and a printer—he can't do anything useful.

Of course this isn't exactly true. He can always assemble the kit himself. There are dozens of magazines and hundreds of books with prerecorded programs for his kind of computer. All he has to do is follow the blueprints—the listings—in the books and magazines, and soon he will be the proud owner of a real computer.

Of course he will need to spend dozens of hours entering in the programs, and dozens of hours more poring over the listings, trying to figure out why his programs don't work.

And he will have to invest in a storage device, so he can save his delicate, precious programs.

And he still needs a printer if he plans to use the computer as an electronic typewriter, book­keeper, or filing cabinet, the three most popular home computer applications.

Voting No To The Home Computer

After the average consumer has forked over from $50 to $300, is he likely to invest another $100 to $1000 for additional hardware and software to "finish off" his computer?

After the consumer has made his purchase and found that he has only half a computer, is he likely to feel positively toward computers and computer companies?

After the average consumer has realized that he has bought a kit, is he likely to roll up his sleeves, master a programming language, or patiently enter in hundreds of lines of unintelligible commands?

The answer to all these questions, for the average consumer, is no.

The After-Christmas Backlash

Under these circumstances, the average person who bought or received a computer for Christmas is not likely to become a computer enthusiast. Instead, he is likely to become part of a growing anticomputer backlash.

More and more individuals and groups in society are coming to the conclusion that personal computers have not lived up to their promise. At the very least, they have not lived up to their commercials.

These individuals and groups are becoming more organized and outspoken. Like me, they see personal computers as a high-speed freight train, and they are set on derailing that train.

The other night I was listening to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." A so-called computer expert was on the show decrying the use of computers in education. In his opinion, most people were using computers as fancy, expensive, electronic flash cards. He warned American parents and teachers that the computer industry was deceiving them in a major way.

Two nights later I read in USA Today that the American Academy of Pediatricians was warning against using computers with small children. The Academy reaffirmed its decade-old statement that "Advertising that promotes… learning environments, programs, or systems is often guiltproducing, misleading and potentially destructive of human development and values." The Academy scolded parents who create a "superbaby syndrome" in which parents buy computers for small children and enroll them in computer classes even before they are toilet-trained.

Fighting Back

The American public has been dazzled by the glamour and high-tech chic of personal computers. On the surface, the public's attitude toward computers seems to have undergone a dramatic change. On the surface, it appears that most Americans approve of computers, if not for themselves, at least for their children. And even if they don't approve of them, they see them as inevitable.

This is, indeed, how Americans feel—on the surface. But what is going on beneath the surface?

I submit that the public's current attitude toward computers is superficial and can easily be changed. I further submit that the situation is becoming increasingly ripe for public opinion to take a swing in the opposite direction. This swing may be dramatic and quick.

The American public has been put on the defensive by the rapid spread of personal computers. But the public is likely to regain the offensive at the first opportunity. Beneath the thin veneer of approval lurk people's old prejudices and stereotypes against computers. These prejudices and stereotypes are fortified and aggravated by the bad experiences millions of people are having, firsthand, with computers.

The American public just needs a champion. As soon as groups and individuals appear who can articulate the public's feelings against computers, the public will rally around them. And then a major backlash against computers will begin.

A Consumer Uprising

People who are alienated by computers are not ignorant Luddites who oppose computers just because they are new and different.

Many people already oppose computers out of ignorance and prejudice. But many more may soon oppose computers because they feel computers have been misrepresented and oversold.

An anticomputer backlash may be in the cards. If so, it should not be viewed by those of us in the computer industry as an ignorant neo-Luddite rebellion. We should see it for what it is: a legitimate uprising by irate, unhappy consumers.