I spend so much time writing about computer problems and how to solve them that I occasionally lose sight of why we use these gadgets in the first place -- or whether we should bother to use them at all.
So I was intrigued by a handwritten note I received recently from a reader I'll call Helen (she asked me to keep her real name confidential). In the same envelope, she enclosed a recent column about victims of "porn-dialers." These programs, which users inadvertently download from the Web, surreptitiously dial adult Web sites and run up huge phone bills.
Here (with a little condensing) is what Helen wrote:
"All of the people in my world seem to have fallen in love with the computer. My niece extols its great value in getting the news one needs, whether in medicine/surgery (my interest), the sciences or any field.
"No matter which direction I look, someone, such as my daughter and her husband, is telling me what I am missing by not having a computer. My son, a computer scientist, even offered to give me a recent castoff computer when he invested in a newer model."
"But truth to tell," Helen confessed, "I am not interested in having one. From all I've read in your column, they're more trouble than they're worth. The enclosed article is just one of many you have written about trouble-making intrusion (of computers) into one's life."
"Now I'll admit that all those people around me have far more gray matter than I. Perhaps I'm not even smart enough to learn the thing....
"Anyway, I'm too busy to devote the time it would take to learn computers. At the age of 84, I'm trying to maintain a 10-room house and yard, keep the timing reasonable on my eight breaks for medicine, take care of 63 years of household furnishings, try to keep up with an ever-deteriorating 73-year-old house, and make plans for moving into a retirement home. Oh, and keep my car in good running order.
"Should the day arrive when I am no longer running to the aid of one or another relative, and I am ensconced in a much smaller apartment, perhaps I'll get interested in learning computers -- just to shut them all up.
"But, more likely, I'll opt to learn Spanish."
Helen certainly has a point. I do seem to dwell on the dark side of computing as much as on the pleasure I still get -- 20 years after buying my first PC -- from tinkering with new technology and putting it to work.
But a lot of that complaining is the result of a technology that's matured to the point where PCs are almost as common as dishwashers -- but not necessarily as reliable.
Computers are like automobiles in this regard. When Henry Ford's first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1909, only a handful of people -- all of whom were either rich, mechanically inclined or both -- owned an automobile. Twenty years later, millions owned cars, used them every day, and spent a lot of time complaining about them.
The cars of the 1920s and 1930s -- in the same stage of development as today's personal computers -- were notoriously unsafe, uncomfortable and unreliable. A few miles outside of major cities, the roads they traveled were rarely paved.
My mother, who's about Helen's age, recalls that a 60-mile trip from Philadelphia to Atlantic City was a major adventure in the 1920s -- rarely accomplished without flat tires and a mechanical breakdown.
But those cars were also incredibly liberating. For all their flaws, they allowed an unprecedented number of Americans to travel wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, instead of being tied to train or trolley schedules and fixed routes. The pleasure was worth the pain.
Today's basic automobile is impossibly luxurious by the standards of 1930. It's also far safer, cleaner, more comfortable and more reliable. Driving it requires almost no mechanical knowledge. In fact, the main problem with automobiles today is how many there are. Traffic jams and smog aren't results of how bad cars are, but how good they are.
So if today's computers seem a little balky and unreliable, it's because they've barely reached adolescence. Even so, they provide information, communication, entertainment and productivity possibilities that were unthinkable when they appeared a couple of decades ago. They just need a little time to grow up.
Meanwhile, Helen, I wouldn't be defensive about not having a PC. If you've reached the age of 84 without a computer, and you're still as active and involved as you seem to be, you probably don't need one.
My advice: Let the kids enjoy their PCs while you enjoy your Spanish lessons. But if you ever change your mind, I can recommend some good software to help you learn the language.
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