Byting the Bullet
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net

1998 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




My friend Liz is an attractive, intelligent, witty, 50-year-old woman with a successful business career and a dark secret.

She spends her days in fear that someone at work may uncover the truth. She is on guard at parties, especially when she's had a few cocktails, and watches her conversations carefully to avoid the inadvertent phrase or even the slightest look of incomprehension which would reveal what she so desperately endeavors to hide from the world: Liz is computer-illiterate.

Try as she will to conceal her lack of even the most rudimentary familiarity with technology, someone will eventually ask her for her e-mail address or inquire if she's checked out such-and-such a site on the net and Liz will fluster and wail out her confession with the same semi-hysterical tones Prissy used to tell Miss Scarlett she didn't know nothin' about birthin' babies.

She travels with a company-supplied laptop, but is only vaguely aware of how it functions, to the point of asking me one day if it had to be on to receive e-mail. She raises the screen and timidly touches the power-on switch as if she were gingerly firing-up a portable particle accelerator.

More and more Americans, especially those who know who that perky woman is in the Polident commercials, are discovering, much to their horror, that this whole "computer thing" is not going to just go away like a nagging rash. Computers and e-mail and the web are here to stay and a lot of people feel left out, confused and frustrated.

There is no shame, of course, in not knowing how to use a computer. In fact, there are those who do quite well, thank you very much, without one, and will continue to lead contented, productive lives. The sin is in being mindful of the need to be computer-literate, yet throwing up one's hands in protest at the effort it requires.

In Thomas Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure, a bookless young orphan, desperate to learn the language of the Roman poets, finally obtains a second-hand Latin grammar, only to discover that "there was no law of transmutation ... that every word was to be individually committed to memory at the cost of years of plodding." He flings the book down "and was an utterly miserable boy for the space of a quarter of an hour." This sounds like a lot of new computer users, who expect technical literacy to come to them through either osmosis or divine revelation.

Americans like their solutions like they like their food: fast. Most new computer users routinely avoid taking the time to do the one thing most likely to help them: reading the manual.

In the summer of 1983, I spent every Sunday sitting by a pool reading the manual for "DB Master," an early, crude database program for the Apple+ my boss had bought and insisted I learn. I might as well have been reading The Iliad in Greek. File? Record? These were concepts so foreign as to be gibberish. I kept saying those words over and over again, "File, record, file, record," until I sounded like Helen Keller with her hand under the pump mumbling "Wa-wa." Suddenly, a light bulb went off and the whole gestalt of how the program - and, by extension, computers - worked presented itself to me in one Lourdes-like vision.

Everything I know about computers I got from opening the manual to page one and slogging my way through to the appendix. Yes, I know most of them are written by people who use acronyms and buzzwords with annoying abandon, but most manuals are honest, heartfelt attempts to guide a user step-by-step through the education process. They are not to be greedily rifled at random like a box of chocolates or, even worse, left in their shrink-wrap and tossed into the back of the closet.

New users also frequently fail to read one other valuable source of advice and information - the screen in front of them. They will click wildly at the first object which presents itself to their line of vision or attention without surveying the full range of choices and their context. When I used to train new computer users, prior to my confinement here at Shady Acres, 5 support problems out of 10 could be solved by reminding the user to simply read the screen. They would usually discover that the right button to push was not always the big one.

Setting up a PC, installing a modem, and configuring software to access the Internet is indeed difficult. A computer is one complex appliance. You want simple? Buy a toaster. But all you'll get is toast.

And yes, it should be easier. But it's not, so there. Get over it, open those manuals, sign up for that class at your local computer retailer ... and read those screens!

The highway is much more thrilling when you drive in the fast lane.