August 31 - September 6, 1995

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


I HAVE DECIDED to return to the comparatively sane and comprehensible world of paper and ink. I'm taking this $3,500 assortment of silicon and plastic back to the store and renewing my subscription to the morning rag. From now on, as I sip my morning mug of mud, I'll have that familiar mess of pulp paper to rassle with, and those welcome ink-stains on my fingers. Jesus, I was born into this business in the age of the Linotype machine and the Underwood 5. Adaptability is a fine thing, but no virtue when all you're adapting to is some technophile's most recent nocturnal emission.

And that, I have concluded, is what all the hype about the Information Superhighway is about: being led around by the nose, the 'nads and the credit card, by Bill Gates and a bunch of other billionaire computer nerds who simply cannot resist any opportunity to show everyone how fucking clever they are.

Never confuse clever with smart. If Bill Gates were smart, computers really would be what he and his peers have been telling us they are for the last 15 years: functional, efficient and user-friendly.

I know I've been playing the fool for your entertainment of late, regaling you with the perils of my venture onto the Superhighway. And it's tempting to conclude that an old fart like me just isn't hip enough to play these Star Wars games that come so naturally to younger generations. Bullshit. I've been using computers longer than many of you have been alive, and given reliable hardware and de-bugged software I can get around quite nimbly, thank you. This level of technology has allowed me to live my 19th-century cowboys-and-indians fantasy, far from the pavement's end. And this is the past to which I am returning.

I'll go back to my Stone Age computer, and simply type on it. Then I'll dial up someone else's computer, over my old, decrepit copper phone lines, and my glacially slow modem will talk to their modem, and in about an hour I'll make my weekly nut.

So what do you think about the old, slow, inefficient protocols of the past, huh? With this new Pentium hotrod with a billion bytes of memory and every bell and whistle this month's technology offers, it has taken me whole days just to get my modem to speak to The Weekly's modem. And in mid-conversation, it hangs up. I do not define it as progress when what is old and paid-for and ridiculed as archaic can perform in one hour a simple task, while what is new and expensive and state-of-the-art requires three days and $30 dollars worth of long distance help calls and a 120-mile round-trip drive by a computer-literate friend to do.

Ah, but you say this is just temporary: a short trip up a steep learning curve. Sure. For this piece of computer hardware. Like the last piece of hardware you bought...and painfully learned to use in your own, very limited line of duty.

And next year there will be an entirely new generation of computers to render this year's several grand-worth of hardware obsolete. And the software to run it will be just enough "evolved" to guarantee that it never quite works on the machine you own, exactly the way the manual reads.

It's no small coincidence that I pen these thoughts on the Day of the Second Coming. It is August 24 in the Year of Our Mr. Gates Nineteen and Ninety-Five. Windows '95 is out today, and computer stores all across America opened at midnight so desperate computer slaves could give Bill Gates $2.9 billion.

Hey, if Bill Gates and Microsoft deserve that level of wealth, how come Windows 3.11 needed upgrading? For that kind of cash, computer hardware and software ought to be fucking perfect. You should be able to buy a computer, plug it in, hit the switch and fly. Information Superhighway, my ass: With the kind of brains and money we've invested in computers, earthbound transportation of information should be a relic of the past. We should be able to send questions and receive answers in four dimensions and at the speed of thought.

And some folks are; that's the root of the problem. Computer whizzes leap-frog so far ahead of the rest of us that they leave their inventions, and their customers, orphaned and helpless. The worthlessness of yesterday's hardware is a standing joke in computer circles, but it's no joke in the real world. It really is daunting and difficult for normal human beings to learn new software, new hardware and simply get down to the business of writing letters, balancing books, retrieving information from data-bases...because we aren't perfect and neither are the men and women who keep inventing new and "improved" systems.

The future belongs to this computer priesthood. And it ain't cheap. We like to think this exponentially expanding technology has brought computing within the grasp of the least of us. Sure, for $5 you can buy a digital wristwatch that keeps better time than a Rolex. For $50 you can buy an old computer that can outthink the first roomful of Rand.

But to buy a system that can keep up with the Joneses of contemporary PC2--personal computer political correctness--runs about three large ones every couple of years. That's fifteen hundred bucks per annum, and beyond the reach of the populist population.

Nor does affluence buy admittance to the priesthood. The rich and powerful can hire priests to program their computers and answer their questions, but they'll never know if the priests are lying to them--shifting their riches into Swiss bank accounts, telling TRW they still owe Sears for a 20-year-old washer-drier, running up a record of 500 unpaid parking tickets on the police computer--until it's too late.

I think it's time we slowed this runaway train and let the real world catch up. Too much is at stake here, and we are too dependent on information that is now only accessible via computers, to leave the future entirely to the marketplace. Nothing is perfectible, but we can achieve practicable and practical. And we need universal protocols, operating systems and software to enable information to travel without passports.

When I can buy a computer and know that it will work as it should, do what the manufacturer says it will, and won't be rendered useless by tomorrow's Rookie of the Year, I'll come back to the future.

Meanwhile, I'll see you in the funny papers.

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August 31 - September 6, 1995

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