Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 50 / JULY 1984 / PAGE 96

Computers And Society

David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor


Craig Brod is a psychotherapist who is seeing a disturbing trend in his patients. He is seeing a new malaise that he calls technostress. His concern over this ailment was apparently so severe that he felt obliged to write a book about it (Technostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution, Addison-Wesley, $16.95). Whether technostress is a serious malady is not for me to ponder, but there is little question in my mind that Dr. Brod's book will induce stress in many of its computer-literate readers.

According to Dr. Brod, our societal fabric is being reshaped as a result of our headlong push into the information age. It is astounding to see the nature of the ailments that appear to be caused by the mere use of computers in society:

The wife of a director of computer services for a large bank reports that when she first met her husband, he was a warm and sensitive man. Today he has no close friends and his only recreational activity is watching television. He no longer has patience for the easy exchange of informal conversation. One night, she asked him to slow down as they walked home.

"Walk faster," he replied.

"I can't walk faster. My legs are shorter than yours."

"That's no excuse," he said. "You have to learn to walk more efficiently."

David Thornburg is an author and speaker who has been heavily involved with the personal computer field since 1978. His main interest is in making computers responsive to people's needs. He is the inventor of the KoalaPad graphics tablet and is the author of nine books about programming. His recent series Computer Art and Animation (Addison-Wesley) includes four books on Logo for the Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, and TI computers. Discovering Apple Logo (Addison-Wesley) shows how Logo can be used as a tool for exploring the art and pattern of nature. He has been called "an enthusiastic advocate for a humanistic computer revolution," and his editorial opinions have appeared in COMPUTE! since its inception.

But Is It Pervasive?

Now, seriously, folks, this man has problems—but I can't believe that the computer is the cause of them. The fact is that, as a therapist, Dr. Brod is more likely than the rest of us to encounter people who are having difficulty adapting to change—and we are definitely going through a period of intense change. Nonetheless, rather than suggesting that he is observing the aberrant behavior of a minority, Dr. Brod goes so far as to suggest that we are' all potential victims of the onslaught of computer technology.

As one example of this, he suggests that the reason we as a nation have purchased so many computers is because we fear them:

Ironically, we are motivated by fear to accept what is supposed to bring security and hope. Workers and managers fear obsolescence if they are not at the technological forefront. Parents, concerned about the demands of future educators and employers, feel compelled to make sure their children are computer-literate at an early age. Those who do not join the revolution will, we are told, become relics of a backward culture.

I seriously question whether any readers of this magazine felt that society compelled them to buy a computer. If it is considered a "negative sell" to encourage people to become facile with the tools of their future, then so be it.

I, for one, see things in a much more positive light.

The Best Tool Available

The fact of the matter is that I use computers for several reasons. I use a word processor for all my correspondence, books, and articles because it is, quite simply, the best tool available for the job. The fact that some authors can whip out books in front of an old Underwood is fine with me—but I'm not one of those authors. Dr. Brod suggests that authors who use word processors do not produce as finely crafted works as those who have to completely retype their early drafts.

I think he is confusing technology with writing style. Yes, it is easier to change a line or paragraph with a word processor—one doesn't have to retype an entire page. But if I have written something that just doesn't hang together, I rewrite it from scratch, and so do many other authors with whom I have talked. In fact, I have found that college students often hand in essays that they would really like to change, simply because the time associated with retyping the complete document is prohibitively long. The presence of a word processor may, in fact, make better writers of all of us.

Parents are right to be interested in their children's education, and they are right to realize that the computer can be an important educational tool. But to suggest that the success of Apple and Commodore and IBM has arisen out of a fear in the buying public is (and this is not a medical opinion on my part) pure hogwash.

Yes, guilt has been used to sell computers, especially in the late 1970s ("Make an investment in your child's future—buy a computer"), but this isn't any different from the time-honored approach for selling encyclopedias.

True, It's Not Perfect

Now I know that some of you must be saying that the computer revolution isn't all it's cracked up to be, that computers are frustrating to use, that they cause disruptions in offices when they are installed, and that computers and robots are likely to change the very nature of our workforce—especially in the blue and pink collar areas.

You are right, of course. Many of us use computers in spite of their poor user interfaces (even though these are improving all the time), and, yes, a lot of jobs are going to disappear in the near future. But, after all, we have been down this road before in our history. Many buggy whip manufacturers must have either changed their business or gone bankrupt when the automobile replaced the horse.

The computer will be no more or less traumatic in its impact on society. Dr. Brod is quick to point out, of course, that the convenience of automobiles has brought with it 50,000 annual deaths on our nation's highways, and some severe smog problems as well.

I would be the last to suggest that the automobile has been an unqualified blessing, but I can't imagine our culture surviving, let alone growing, if we went back to the horse and buggy.

A Heavier Workload

One of Dr. Brod's points is that many of the labor-saving aspects of computers haven't been realized by the people who are using them. Secretaries who, according to the word processor ads, should now have time for "that extra cup of coffee" are finding that their ability to generate letter-perfect documents is increasing their work-load as their managers ask for work to be redone until it is perfect. Organizations that functioned adequately when financial statements were generated quarterly are now using electronic spreadsheets to do financial statements on a weekly basis, thus increasing the workload for that department.

Dr. Brod is correct in assuming that more isn't necessarily better, but one must ask how much the computer contributed to the increased flow of information. From my own experiences inside Fortune 500 companies, the information backlog has been there all the time—all the computer is doing is helping to handle a preexisting problem.

As I mentioned a few months ago, John Naisbitt's concept of high-tech/high-touch (as expressed in his book Megatrends) showed that as we became more involved with the use of technology in our work and play, we have also become more interested in those things that make us uniquely human. Dr. Brod claims that the reverse is true—that the computer world is symbol-intensive, not sensual, and that this constricts us in our ability to interpret and create in a human way.

If this is the case, then how was Michel-angelo able to create such a sensitive work of art as the Piteá using such cold and inhuman tools as the hammer and chisel? Once again, I feel that Dr. Brod has confused the technology with its use. The two are quite different from each other.

The Computer As Scapegoat

And yet, in chapter after chapter, we find that computer technology is the purported cause of much that is "wrong" with our society. His chapter on computers and kids, for example, is filled with the typical hand-wringing about video-games that has appeared in all the tabloids. This is surprising, considering that many of his colleagues who have actually researched the matter find that video arcades do not cause perversion, or even acne.

After devoting several chapters to his observations of the purported ills foisted upon us by computers, Dr. Brod does give some careful thought to ways to make us capable of handling this technology, even though many of us never knew we had any problems.

Technostress is a book filled with quotable material, and it will probably be heralded as an important book by technophobes everywhere. It will probably receive a lot of press, and its author will probably be in great demand as a speaker, as he carries his message to the world. After all, as a society, we always seem to favor the bad news over the good, and seem to devote our energies to looking for only the real or imagined wrongs in our world.

If Dr. Brod wanted to perform a service to mankind, he might have devoted his energies to solving this problem, rather than extrapolating the quirks of his patients to the rest of society.