The great personal computer con. Tim Hartnell.
It may be harsh news, but those who market personal computers have been conning us for years.
Be honest. What do you really do with your personal computer? I don't mean the things you tell people when they ask (so you can disguise the fact that every disk you own is filled with bootleg copies of games like Space Gobbler or Smash Hell Out of the Alien), I mean the things that you actually do.
Several times I've been interviewed regarding personal computers and inevitably (after the obligatory question "Are computer games leading us to raise a race of people who can solve problems only by blowing up their opponents?") the wise interviewer will say, "Well, I've thought about it, and there is nothing I can see that I would use a computer for at home."
And when I thought about it seriously, I realized that I didn't have much idea of what people really did with personal computers or why they bought them. I know what the marketers of personal computers say you can do. And this is where the con comes in.
There are two main approaches they use. The first one runs like this: "Buy a computer or your child will be hopelessly left behind at school and will be handicapped for life." I reject these claims absolutely because (a) they attempt to arouse parental guilt and feelings of inadequacy; and (b) because they are just plain lies. This direction can hardly, to my mind, be one in which the answer to "what do you need a personal computer for?" can be found.
The second main way to sell personal computers seems to be the "use the computer as a Gee Whiz Aid around the house." Balance your checkbook on it, store recipes on it, catalog your books.
In Time magazine last year, the results of a survey of owners of personal computers were published. The results showed that 49% of those surveyed claimed they used their computers for "balancing their checkbooks." Bunkum. I suggest the people who drew up the survey questions and analyzed the results should have been a bit more critical. I bet that nearly all (if not all) of the 49% ticked the "balance my checkbook" box because they didn't want to be seen as someone who "just plays games."
It seems to me that many of the reasons manufacturers give us for buying a computer are either lies or are so utterly irrelevant as to suggest that those drawing up the advertising don't have a clue as to what the products would be used for.
What do you use your computer for (or, if you don't have, one, what do you think you would use it for)? If you are like most of my computer-owning friends, you spend a lot of very satisfying time just "mucking about" with it--writing programs, typing in stuff out of books and magazines, expanding your programming knowledge, playing with commercial software.
As well, you may use it--as more and more people appear to be doing--as a word processor for letters and reports, or for keeping control of a mailing list for your club. However, I'll bet you spend most of the time just "mucking about" with your computer.
People don't ask, when they see your car in the driveway or notice an electronic organ in your home, "What do you do with it?." You feel you are entitled to have a musical instrument to muck about on, with no intention of giving a concert at the Lincoln Center, and you can drive for pleasure without feeling you must one day be a racing driver or drive a cab around town. Why should a computer be different?
It is the quintessential toy. It is an infinite passageway that can lead you and your mind just about anywhere you choose. You do not have to use it (or feel you must defend why you are not so using it) as a poor substitute for a stack of file cards or a calculator and the back of an envelope. When Faraday was asked the use of that new-fangled stuff "electricity," he turned the question back on the enquirer by saying "What's the use of a newborn baby?"
The personal computer is still a newborn baby. We are still at the horse and buggy stage of computing. At present, computers are pretty dumb and in need of constant direction.
And here's where the "telephone" of the title comes in . I believe that fairly soon (within six years) computers will be much like present day telephones.
You don't need an instruction book or a four-week course to use the telephone. You see someone do it or you have 12 seconds of instruction and you can use a phone for life.
This will happen with computers. And when it does, when you can just get one, talk to it and get it to talk back to you and do what you want it to do without hassle or misunderstanding, the personal computer will really have arrived. Once it has come to this, no one will ask "Why do you need one around the house?"
Until the era of the Hartnell Telephone-Like Computer, there is just one way to answer those people who want to know what use a personal computer can possibly be. Assume a sage-like expression, raise one eyebrow like Mr. Spock about to go boldly where no man has been before, look fixedly at your enquirer, and ask softly "What is the use of a newborn baby?" That'll shut 'em up.