My computer and I have a love- hate relationship. It does wondrous things for me, but also frustrates the hell out of me on a regular basis. As I write this on my laptop, I hearken back to the times I spent with my Smith-Corona typewriter, and the number of times I needed to start over for there was no way to correct a mistake. But its abominable replacement corrects my spelling mistakes. It allows me to communicate with people all over the world for free, or send them copies of documents, without buying a stamp and trekking to the post office. It has made carbon paper and mimeograph machines obsolete as I can now copy anything simply by sticking it in my printer, and pushing a button. Inside my steno-notebook sized kindle resides more books than I could store in all the bookshelves in my house. Were I to print all the information in my computer, I am certain it wouldn’t fit into the 3 drawer filing cabinet that sits by my desk. I realize that for you young bucks this is all mundane, but we old folks look at all this stuff, compare it with the way we used to do things, and say, wow!!!
Admittedly, my learning curve has been flat, so by the time I had learned how to turn off my computer (back in the ancient era of DOS) without deleting my hard drive, the smart phone entered the scene and I was once again humbled. It does everything except wash the dishes, but I am sure someone is working on an app to add to its repertoire as we speak. My youngest granddaughter has given me lessons on how to use mine, but she has now moved on to adolescence and has better things to do with her time than waste it on a digital illiterate who can’t even speak computerese. I do find it difficult to learn when I don’t understand the language.
Translating Computer Geek
This translation problem became apparent when Barb and I bought a new car recently. My troubles escalated. She was enamored with the one we chose because it featured a heated steering wheel. That steering wheel was also covered with a bunch of little drawings. I can’t believe the computer gods insist on calling those primitive drawings icons, but the salesman spent a great deal of time explaining what all those things would do. I was so completely awestruck, I promptly forgot all his instructions. There was a plethora of other gadgets on a lighted screen, most of which I am still trying to figure out.
The Computer Rules the Road
This premium package model we purchased came equipped with a backseat driver, thereby assuming many of Barb’s responsibilities. I discovered the steering wheel button that allows me to talk to Barb’s electronic replacement. She responds with a pleasant enough voice, will tell me how to get where I want to go, and find my favorite radio station among other things. Our relationship is currently strained however, following a rift over getting directions to a friend’s home. I told her I wanted to go to an address on Westchester Court and she gave me directions to West Chaucer Ct. After repeating my request several times with the same response, I became frustrated and called her a very bad name. Fortunately Siri was with me and she came through with the correct directions.
Other backseat driver duties include warning me when I stray out of my lane, am too close behind, or about to sideswipe another car. It turns on my lights when it gets dark and dims them when another car approaches. Computers do so many things that much is taken for granted like checking the air in my tires, telling me when I need an oil change telling me my average speed, and how many miles I can go before refueling. When there are engine troubles with a modern car, don’t expect a mechanic to tell you what is wrong: a computer will. About all that is left for me to do is operate the gas pedal, brakes and steering wheel, but I am told that will soon be unnecessary when computers take total control. If you think that is farfetched, must I remind you that your next plane trip may be completed with the controls untouched by human hands. I know I am old fashioned, but the idea of that pilot napping in the cockpit while some little box runs the plane is somewhat disturbing to me.
Back to My PC: the good, the bad, and the ugly
My computer is a treacherous little devil, for while it is doing all this good stuff for me, it betrays me by sending personal data to people I don’t even know. It allows things the geeks call “cookies” to be placed in the machine, which in turn lets it to do all kinds of things without my permission or knowledge. Sometimes it seems to have a mind of its own and refuses to do what I want it to do. At other times it scares the hell out of me by telling me that if I do this or that, data may be lost. This usually occurs soon after I have decided to trust it and not make hard copies. Then there is that other sword of Damocles, the hacker who is a constant threat. As a psychiatrist, I’m still trying to understand why anyone would get such a kick out of screwing up my life. As my daughter used to say back in the 80s, “Get a life, dude.”
Barb (my wife) says she hears me swearing a lot when I am in my little room using the computer, and I must confess that much of my frustration is because I don’t know what I am doing. She has suggested that I take some lessons, but I tried that once and it didn’t help. My guru, Tom, attempts to reassure me that I do well for someone my age. I suspect he means that soon I may progress to the level of competence of your average four-year-old. The way mechanical things work has always fascinated me, but in spite of what I thought was some mechanical aptitude I remain electronically challenged. It seems clear now that how all that stuff got stuffed into that little box will always remain a mystery.
I can think of no areas of our lives in which we are not impacted by this high tech stuff. We have become more and more dependent upon computers to operate our world. It has been said that without computers and a functioning internet not only would the world’s economy, but our very existence, be at risk. Commerce as we know it would be paralyzed. Electrical grids and other utilities would be affected. Transportation problems would likely interfere with the availability of food supplies. It is hard to think of many human activities that would not be affected. For these reasons, it is predicted that cyber warfare would likely affect the entire populous and not just the military establishment. Computers have been important in the search to find ways to kill people more efficiently and with greater precision, which might be considered a good or bad thing depending on one’s point of view. For me, it is sometimes a stretch to see that glass as half full, but most of the time I feel the good outweighs the bad. For example many of the marvels of modern medicine could not have been achieved without computer technology.
The other day I read an article in Scientific American by John Pavlus about the latest research on evolving computer development, and decided to put forth a final effort to unravel some of the mystery of these gadgets. I was also motivated by the movie “The Imitation Game” which chronicled the invention of the first computer by Alan Turing, and my own peripheral involvement in its further development only a few years later. After completion of my internship in 1958, I joined the Navy as a general duty medical officer and was stationed at the Naval Proving Grounds in Dahlgren, Virginia. It was located on the Potomac River at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay with a primary mission of testing the big guns used on battleships of that day.
Since the large guns of battleships were charged with hitting a target several miles away, the calculations to determine trajectory and other factors required precise mathematical calculations. To that end IBM had constructed the NORC (even then the feds were fond of acronyms) or Naval Ordinance Research Calculator. A large two story brick building was built to house NORC, and it was powered by vacuum tubes very much in the manner of Turing’s machine. People were amazed at the calculations that could be completed in a matter of seconds by this monster, which probably had 1/10 the power of my iPhone.
Obviously computers have come a long way since NORC. I have heard much about “artificial intelligence,” and although I don’t know what that term means, it seems computers are getting smarter all the time. What does it mean when a computer can win at Jeopardy, and the world’s best chess players are defeated by computers? Much has been said about the supposed inability of computers to replace the human brain so I found it quite interesting when Mr. Pavlus reported that a group at IBM is at work to develop a chip “aimed to mimic cortical columns in the mammalian brain,” while researchers at Hewlett-Packard are also hoping to design one which will function “more like a neuron.” These chips are said to contain 41/2 and 5 billion transistors respectively.
I recall when transistor radios came on the market with a great deal of fanfare. Prior to that time the smallest radios were about the size of a picnic basket, and although I thought the idea of a radio which you could carry in your pocket was cool, I had no idea what a transistor was. With the help of Mr. Wikipedia, I can now report that a transistor is a switch which can be turned off or on, and that a chip has lots of transistors and is attached to a printed circuit board. The computer processes all that information by flipping those little switches, some smaller than a virus. Now that I know all about computers, I am sure I will never call mine a bad name again.
Computers are a good example of the good, the bad and the ugly. They do wondrous things for us, but also invade our privacy, and pose newfound threats to our well being. But for all man’s endeavors, no matter how spectacular, there seems to have always been a down side.