And now a little something from Chris Bell, standing alone against an avalanche of Technophilia...

Batteries Not Included

Mostly I enjoy technology when it manifests in my life. I approve of bathrooms, and kitchens, and the like, which function properly; and these exist as a result of technology. On the whole, if one ignores television and suchforth which follow Sturgeon's Law slavishly, modern communications seem a good thing; in general travel is vastly preferable now, as a result of technology, to the way it was in the past: all those books in which people travel around by coach rarely seem to mention the suspension, which as anyone who has been for any distance in a horse-drawn coach, as I have, will testify is less than comfort-inducing even on a paved road such as didn't exist until technology made them possible. l also know of no greater pleasure at a con than watching (from a safe distance and in absolute silence) the tech crew wrestling with their cable-knitting....

I'm well known to be a neo-Luddite on the subject of computers, though, aren't I? I'll come clean and tell you: it's not actually true that I hate the things. I've got three on the desk here as I write, and another underneath it in a box, and I have been using one for the past ten years. I'm really quite fond of them in an exasperated sort of way. I certainly wouldn't say that computers are superfluous. For many activities they may not be entirely essential, but they're useful in a variety of ways, and they can be fun as well. But I can't help noticing that Plokta's phrase "superfluous technology" generally seems to end up being applied to computers, in one way or another. Nobody automatically assumes that someone is talking about a microwave oven or a video machine or a new sort of bicycle when he says "superfluous technology". It's always something to do with a computer that some member of the Cabal has just got, right? And it's somehow assumed that it's the new thing which is superfluous, rather than the old one which is now redundant.

So it seems that the idea that computers may be superfluous is easy to convey; there is already present in many people a resistance to the idea that they are a good thing. There are all sorts of historical urban-mythical reasons for this, usually involving gas-bills in the thousands of pounds and little old ladies killing themselves, or other stupidities which were always blamed on the computer and never on errors by the operators or the programmers of the computer; but it does seem rather silly not to have begun to discount these by now. I have therefore been casting about for some time trying to find reasons for hating computers, as it were: reasons for the irrational dislike of them which comes over me, willy-nilly, when they are being panegyrised. I don't like having knee-jerk reactions, you see: I always want to understand why I do or feel something.

Now, I recently had the interesting experience of watching someone who has used the same home computer for word-processing over some years wrestling with a new application for it. I was fascinated by the feeling of helpless panic followed by resentment which the familiar machine seemed able to induce at that point. I was fascinated; and I was also reminded of something which at first I couldn't lay my finger on. Then it came to me.

Baby Chris and teddy bear Do you remember, or have you ever watched, what happens when the present which is opened with such joy on Christmas morning, the newest shiniest cleverest electronic toy of them all, the toy for which one had begged, and waited eagerly, turns out not to have the batteries with it? (I'm talking about the bad old days before this Christmas, when you couldn't just go out and buy batteries from some shop which forced half-a-dozen wage-slaves to work on Christmas Day.) Or when the instructions for its assembly are impossible to follow because (one finally has to assume) they have been translated from German into English via the Japanese by a Basque speaker, and furthermore Tab B is nowhere to be seen? There's terrible disappointment in the discovery that one just can't play with this wonderful new gadget until it has been fixed in some way, and one can't do that oneself no matter how one tries.... Disappointment, followed by anger, and then deep resentment which focuses not on the donor or on the designer but on the toy itself. Somehow one is never going to be able to feel the same pleasure in it which one would have felt if it had worked properly from the start.

That is what always happens when a non-expert starts to use the new computer which does lots of things which haven't been available before. Not just sometimes; always. Unless what you have is a machine and a program with which you are already totally familiar, within ten minutes of your firing up the new shiny compact state-of-the-art wotsit which is sitting on your desk-that is, at the precise moment when you embark on using one of the new features which are the reason you got the thing in the first place-something will go wrong: and you won't know what, and you won't know why, and you won't know what to do about it. You know that this is your own fault, because you have asked the machine to do something which for some reason it can't understand; and you have a nasty feeling that anything which you now do will make it come to pieces completely, and then it will never work again. You can't get anywhere further, and you're going to have to shout for help. You feel helpless, and frustrated, and stupid.

If you're lucky (and I'm really lucky, and God bless Chris Suslowicz and Dave Langford and Roger Burton West and Tanaqui Weaver) you have friends who if not actually sitting beside you when this happens are a mere phone call away, and when you ring them up and tell them what has gone wrong they won't patronise you about it; they'll say something like "Well, I think it might be (such-and-such)"-even when they know for certain that the only way you could have got where you now are is by making some really dumb error which only a complete novice with an IQ rating somewhere in the low 40s would make, they'll still put it like that, and spare your feelings-and tell you how to put it right, or how to get from the mess you are in to where you were trying to go, or whatever else.

Young Chris and debris (If you aren't lucky enough to have such people in your life, what you'll have to do is consult the assembly instruction booklet, er, the manual. Yes. Well. Good luck.)

And to revert to the new toy model for a moment, there is another distinct similarity between your new computer and (say) your new train set. You need to choose your friendly experts with enormous care. Otherwise you will end up, as so many small boys have done over the years, watching rather sadly whilst Daddy sets up the railway, I mean sorry whilst yer Expert sorts out the software, and makes it do all sorts of interesting things which you know perfectly well you won't ever be able to repeat because it has all happened so quickly and the explanation of how it did it doesn't include a step-by-step note of what was actually done.

After this has happened, you may well need to start again. (Swallows and Amazons readers will remember Dick and Dot restepping the mast when they first sailed Scarab, after Nancy and Peggy had done this for them so fast that they couldn't see what was happening.) Dave Langford is my witness, I once rang him up and asked him to talk me through reinstalling WordPerfect 5.1 in DOS for a machine he had set up mere days before; in the interim an expert had laid hands on it, and I couldn't do a thing with it. He was very good about the whole business, and didn't try to correct anything, he just told me how to wipe the slate clean and start up from scratch, talking me through it on the phone. There are probably technical terms for the process of wiping a computer clean and doing whatever it was that I did under his patient instruction, but I don't know them. I do know that it didn't involve a large electromagnet, which was what I had been contemplating at one point just to see what that did to a computer which sat there and refused to start up.... It didn't even involve my axe.

What I also know is that during the several hours before I admitted defeat and rang him, when I was wrestling with that machine in tears of exasperation because what was going on made no sense and I couldn't find the relevant bits in any manual because they were all called something different from what they had been called in the manual for the previous set-up, I felt exactly like a child who is bitterly disappointed by a new toy which doesn't do what it is meant to. The sensation was identical. It's a form of misery I hadn't experienced for the best part of thirty years, and it threw me straight back into the mind-set of a child who is cross and sad and frustrated. I childishly hated the machine which had caused it. In fact, I never did get to love that computer, and when the chance came to abandon it and move to a nice new one, I did it like a shot.

Chris and malfunctioning computer So I want to put this thought to all the people who do understand computers intuitively, and who can't somehow get to grips with the idea that there might be anyone who is still happily using a PCW and doesn't want to upgrade thank you.... that anyone might not like computers, or want them, or trust them, or see any need for a new one. It will do no good to explain all the advantages, at this point. You may, if you have a nice user-friendly computer, allow such a person to play with your computer over a period of some weeks, making sure that you are always at hand to explain what is going on when the thing suddenly says that an error of type 12 has occurred (I know that you won't have the faintest idea what this means either, nobody does, it's a plot, but at least you'll know that it isn't the end of the world and you'll know how to stop it from happening all the time) or blandly refuses to delete a file or whatever other cute trick it may think up. By such means you may manage to convince this poor technologically challenged individual that the newer computer is not actively hostile, just very, very stupid; that it's not the user who is the moron, but may be the machine that is being uncooperative. After a few months of this gradual running-in the patient may start to feel that there is something in this more modern computing stuff after all: at which point you must at all costs make sure that the computer he gets is the same as yours, or as near as can be managed, so that he can feel triumphant about knowing how to fool the thing into doing what he wanted.... Yes, I occasionally say "nah-nah-nee-nah-nah" to this one, when it has tried to mess me about and I've known how to stop it from doing its worst to me. See? Childish. Immensely satisfactory, too. I won, I won, I won. Beat you! Heh. I wonder what percentage of computers have "You Bastard" as their owners' pet-name for them?

What you are dealing with when you try to convince someone that a new computer is a wonderful thing, you see, is not the rational adult you thought you knew. It may be that what you have is a six-foot-plus unhappy child with a beard and no faith in a new toy. And what's more, the adult you thought you knew may be entirely unaware that this is the case. So treat him gently; don't bully him; don't try to talk to him about it in a reasonable way. Reason has nothing to do with this. Computers bring out the disappointed child in us. They don't do what we want them to. They come without the batteries.

--Chris Bell

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