Night of the living computer

Charles Gordon April 25 1983

Night of the living computer

Charles Gordon April 25 1983

Night of the living computer


Charles Gordon

There is always big money in scaring people to death. If you do not buy A, you suffer from B. The big scare this season is computers. Computers take your job. Computers let the other guy get ahead of you. Ignorance of computers consigns your son or daughter to a life in the gutter.

The videogame commercials on television used to be about videogames. You moved the stick around to avoid enemy rocketships. You pressed this button here to shoot them down. The whole family could enjoy. You would never lack for a babysitter. Now the videogame commercials are about computers. This machine here will teach your child about computers (as well as allow him to shoot down enemy rocketships). He had better know about computers. The boss in one of the commercials congratulates him on his high score in shooting down enemy rocketships. “But,” leers the boss, “what do you know about computers?” The kid gulps.

He is not, we also learn, the only one who should be gulping. There is the lawyer who loses the big case because the other firm has a computer. There is the important business meeting that breaks down in chaos because, in the absence of an office computer, human beings were left in charge of the arrangements.

Computer illiteracy is the foot odor of the 1980s. You can see this by looking at the ads for summer camps. In The New York Times Magazine, prime territory for the summer-camp hunter, no fewer than 38 camps feature computers, in addition to the usual hiking, swimming, horses, handicrafts, spiritual enhancement and weight loss. The phenomenon has moved across the border into Canada, where as much as $450 a week can be made by positioning an Apple among the orange peels, bits of discarded birchbark and beads.

You would be quite wrong if you thought that this was happening because children were demanding to spend more of their summers indoors. Ads saying things like “I swam, I hiked,

I ran a computer” are pitched at futureshocked mommies and daddies. In case they do not get the message, they can read the ad promising that little Jason and Tammy will “learn computer skills that will give them the competitive edge in school and careers.”

The thought of Jason and Tammy facing a life in which all the other kids

have the competitive edge is written on the faces of the parents who stroll warily into the computer room of Ottawa’s National Museum of Science and Technology. Despite the space music and electronic honks, there is a hushed feeling about the room. Their wariness increases as they tread carefully past a sign that proclaims the digital computer THE WORLD’S ULTIMATE TOOL. “If it is the world’s ultimate tool,” the parents are thinking, “how come I do not know what the hell it is?”

This is a computer-whipped generation, accustomed to standing patiently at the checkout counter while the clerk rubs a tomato over a piece of glass, codes appear on a screen, and an aluminum voice says, “Tomato. 43 cents.” This generation will pay $6 in the winter to hit golf balls at a picture of a golf course and let a computer decide whether they are good shots or bad.

Determined that the tee shots and to-

The big scare this season is computers, and there is always big money to be made in scaring people to death’

matoes of the next generation will not be electronically held hostage, Mommy and Daddy steer Jason and Tammy to the educational displays, showing the difference between analog and digital, as they would guide them through a foreign place of worship. Computer camps can almost count their money.

As for Jason and Tammy, what they want is for their parents to go look at the old railway cars and leave them to hammer on the computer keyboards. There are several around the room, and kids, unencumbered by parents, are clustered around them, waiting their turn. A television screen informs a grown-up that a Toronto hairdresser is using a computer to obtain the precise chemical balance of his customers’ hair.

And there is a keyboard that a grownup can try. Jason and Tammy’s daddy looks at a list of questions and selects the one that he wants answered. “641,” the list says. “What is an integrator?” The grown-up punches 6,4,1, and the answer comes up on the screen. “An integrator provides a sum of continuous analog quantities,” it says. The grown-

up does not understand, but a happy thought begins to form. “I ran a computer,” he thinks. “Of course, I did not swim or hike.” He punches three more buttons and learns that one of the first uses of punched cards was in 1801, for the purpose of controlling a weaving mechanism.

Meanwhile, in another part of the building the Ottawa Regional Science Fair is going on, beside an 1890 steam locomotive. Among the participants are a number of students sitting in front of home computers. The words “Sun Seeker Demonstration Menu” glow from one screen. Another display is labelled “Sound Waves: Digital to Analog Synthesis.” Michael Buckthought’s project is labelled “Origin of the Planets.” Says a printed explanation: “It simulates the formation of the inner planets using celestial mechanics.”

Michael, a Grade 13 student at Sir Robert Borden High School in Ottawa, did not get into computers because he was frightened of the future. “I use them because they are fun to use,” he says. As part of the fun he has learned five computer languages in four years. The idea that computers will eliminate jobs is a myth, he says, “if we make certain that the information revolution now going on goes correctly.”

The journalist talking to him is trying to find out how frightened of computers the kids are. Michael, like the younger kids hammering on the keyboards back in the computer museum, is pretty comfortable with computers. The computer, he says, “is just a tool—a very powerful tool.” The journalist, forgetting to ask Michael if he hikes or swims, compares notes on computers. Journalists, a more technologically inhibited group than whom it would be difficult to find, have been using computers for years. It just never occurs to them that they are. They do not know how the thing works but they know that you do this to get in, that to get out, this to delete, that to write, this to get to the beginning, that to get to the end.

Having done that, the journalists get into their cars, turn the key, put the car in gear and drive home without thinking about pistons, carburetors and grommets. At home, they turn on the television and watch commercials about computer illiteracy and dishwasher detergents that leave a soapy film.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.