Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg
Over the past several months a considerable amount of mail has come in regarding a few of my columns. Although it isn't possible to respond to all of you individually, hearing from you is appreciated.
The column on the PCjr and Macintosh stimulated a large response. Judging from many of the letters, PCjr owners should be careful not to move their computer with the cables plugged in. Apparently, this can break the connectors and require expensive repairs of the mother board. While many of you shared some sympathy with my views of IBM's entry into the consumer marketplace, IBM's new version of the PCjr addresses at least some of Junior's problems.
Some of you wrote to express concern that the Macintosh may not make it in the marketplace. If Macs have indeed been selling at an alleged monthly rate well in excess of the total installed base of PCjr's, it is logical to conclude that it already is a success. Of course, it takes more than machines to make a market—the software from third parties is an essential component of any computer system. While a recent check of local computer stores showed less than 20 Mac titles in stock, this computer is so popular that one has to drive as far as 90 miles from the San Francisco Bay area to buy blank disks for it. Since the 3.5-inch disks are made by Sony, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, BASF, and Memorex, the scarcity of these disks in the retail outlets is a pretty good measure of the Mac's popularity, at least locally.
Some of you felt that there wasn't enough
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, including Computer Art and Animation: A User's Guide to Atari Logo, The KoalaPad Book, and Exploring Logo Without a Computer (Addison-Wesley). His 101 Ways to Use a Macintosh will appear soon from Random House. He has been called "an enthusiastic advocate for a humanistic computer revolution," and his editorial opinions have appeared in COMPUTE! since its inception. sensitivity in the critique of Craig Brod's book, Technostress. It was never my intention to claim that technological change couldn't induce stress in people; clearly it can. But this stress is not technology-specific. We need only look at the attempts of the weavers to kill Jacquard, the inventor of the automatic loom, or the attempts of the Luddites to thwart the industrial revolution, to see that major societal changes induce stress in some people. My concern about Brod's book was that he directed it to the general public rather than to his fellow health-care professionals. As a result of being directed to a larger audience, his book has been used by some people as further support for their own belief that computer technology is intrinsically evil.
Technology is neutral. The computer that is used to help a handicapped author write a novel can be used to help rob a bank. The computer that allows one businessperson to spend more time with the family can be used by another as an excuse for withdrawal from society. Unless a single piece of technology can be shown to induce the same stress reaction in everybody, we would perform a greater service to our species by looking at the causes of stress within the human psyche rather than in the artifacts of man. This is not to say that technology can't be abused. It can, and it has. What is of critical importance is to realize that the source of the abuse is human, not mechanical.
All of which brings us to a perennial topic: videogames. In his book Mindstorms, Seymour Papert, the father of Logo, talks about the samba schools in Brazil where children learn the dance from their peers, selecting the group that best represents their skill levels. This environment of peer teaching suggests to Papert a model of educational reform in our own classrooms, a model where children are free to explore computer-based microworlds and to acquire skills and knowledge in the context of these microworlds.
Of course, Papert had Logo in mind as the computational language to be used by the children. But, independently of our schools, and without the benefits of Logo, child-centered computational environments have sprung up in our society almost spontaneously. These are, of course, the game arcades.
Whenever parents and teachers talk about videogames, there are always several strong opponents to the arcades. They talk about the arcades as hangouts for delinquents, they talk about the addictive nature of the games themselves, and they talk about the violence and mayhem represented by the nature of the games themselves. What they don't talk about is their own experience in the arcades because, almost without exception, the most vocal detractors of the arcades have never been inside one! Before giving views on what is happening in the arcades, let's explore the research of some people who have taken the time to study what is going on there.
Sherry Turkle, whose doctorate is in sociology and psychology from Harvard, has spent a lot of time in game arcades, including over 100 hours carefully studying 30 game-players of all ages. Her results are included in her book The Second Self—Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon and Schuster, $17.95). She acknowledges the ambivalence felt by adults toward the game arcades. Their children are coming home from school with new skills, they are learning how to program, and they take computer technology for granted. Parents want their children to have these skills, but they also realize that their expertise in the computer world may create a new generation gap. Consequently, when a game arcade applies for a business license, this is a chance for the parents to say, "Let's wait." As Turkle says, "It feels like a chance to buy time against more than a video game. It feels like a chance to buy time against a new way of life." With respect to the commonly expressed belief that game players are caught in a "mindless addiction," she replies:
There is nothing mindless about a video game. The games demand skills that are complex and differentiated. Some of them begin to constitute a socialization into the computer culture: you interact with a program, you learn how to learn what it can do, you get used to assimilating large amounts of information about structure and strategy by interacting with a dynamic screen display. And when one game is mastered, there is thinking about how to generalize strategies to other games. There is learning how to learn.
It is this epistemological aspect of videogaming that gives it the power to become a good educational medium, if anyone wanted to really explore that field. But this still doesn't address the issue of "addiction." Turkle points out that, yes, some players can become addicted to their games. But she also points out, "Most people don't become addicted to video games just as most people who diet don't become anorexic."
A Man's World
In another in-depth study of videogaming, psychology professors Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus have examined many aspects of these games and their influence on players in their book Mind at Play—The Psychology of Video Games (Basic Books, $14.95). Among many other things, they point out that, in addition to the eye-hand coordination skills acquired through playing these games, there are other indirect benefits as well. One of these is the development of intense interest in computers which can lead the game players into the computer field as a profession.
Another criticism leveled against arcades is that they appear to be male-dominated. Clearly the content of the games themselves has something to do with this. Dragon's Lair, a videodisc based game, has a male player that you control to help save the princess. If this game had the roles reversed, or otherwise took into consideration the types of fantasies that might appeal more to women, it would perhaps encourage more women to visit the arcades.
Of course, there have been some games that seem to appeal equally well to men and women. Among these are Centipede (which was written by a woman), Pac-Man (and its offspring), QIX, Tempest, and several other recent games. If the arcades are the breeding ground for interest in employment in the information sector, then we should do everything in our power to insure that the arcades attract men and women alike.
Of course, there is the additional argument that the games are too violent. But violence has to be viewed in a context. We don't have a videogame in which we see someone go into a restaurant and kill babies in their mother's arms, but we can see that on television if we watch the evening news. We don't have videogames in which the goal is to demoralize the opponent by killing his livestock, laying waste to his property, and killing his children, but we can read all about it in the Bible. If violence is bad in games, then violence is bad, period. Ban the violent games if you wish, but then ban the Bible, ban the news, ban Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, ban Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."
It is one thing to say that our society is too violent, and another to say that videogames are too violent. One can make the argument that we should do something about violence in our society, but violence won't be reduced by removing the videogames. My opinion is that anyone who lets their children read fairy tales or the Bible, but who becomes concerned when the child plays a game defending the earth from alien invaders, is a hypocrite.
Some videogames may be violent, but at least they aren't hypocritical.