Disappointed, But Looking

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Back in early 1987 I was lured into a store on the Tottenham Court Road by a window display of computers. And I’ve been disappointed ever since.

Well, actually they were called Word Processors. Made by a company called Amstrad which to my ear sounded impressive, a railroad-meets-violin mix of Amtrak and Stradivarius.(I only found out later it’s short for Alan Michael Sugar Trading, which isn’t quite as impressive.)

Anyway, I was working on a history thesis at the time, and as I glanced in the window thought I saw the potential of a computer to help me. That in itself was smart. But my mistake was—and remains—the notion that somehow I could bend the computer to my will.

I can’t. And it won’t. Or rather, we users are always hostage to the guy who writes the software that runs on the computer. A computer has to compute something, after all, and it computes what the software tells it to.

I guess I didn’t realize this when I asked the guy in the shop to tell me what the Amstrad PCW8512 did. I was collecting historical data on Thailand and Vietnam in the 1960s at the time and my tutor had taught me the importance of getting things in the right chronological order. (Simple advice: You’d be amazed how many historians don’t bother with such niceties.)

So would the PCW8512 help me do that?

“It lets you write letters,” the assistant said.

That sounds good, I replied, but would it, for example, create a table that let me put in dates and big slices of text and sort them?

“It has 512 kilobytes of RAM,” he said. “And two floppy disk drives.”

I’ll take it, I said.

And I’ve been unhappy ever since.

This is the problem, you see. We don’t buy what we need, we buy what’s available. I couldn’t then, and I still can’t, get a computer to do the things I want to do, I have to do what it wants me to do.

Sometimes this is good. Sometimes we don’t have a clear idea of what we want to do. No one went around saying I’d love to be able to swish, pinch and shake my device but when the iPhone came along everyone decided that was what they wanted to do. Nobody said “I want a device a bit smaller than a drinks tray that mesmerizes me on the couch so I forget who I’m married to and to feed the kids”, but doubtless the iPad will dazzle both users and Wall Street.

But heaven help you if you have a specific problem you want your computer to fix.

I remember when, four years after my Amstrad experience, I decided to buy a computer running Windows. I clearly hadn’t learned my lesson. I asked the guy in the shop to show me how to organize the windows in a specific way and keep them that way for the next time I used the computer. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“It has a 20-megabyte hard-drive,” he said.

I’ll take it, I replied.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of great programs out there. I love PersonalBrain for finding connections between ideas, people and things, and Liquid Story Binder is great for writing books. Evernote is great for saving stuff. ConnectedText is useful as a sort of personal database with cross-referencing. But they are all someone else’s idea of how to work. Not mine.

They don’t say to me: Tell me how you work, and how you want to work, and I’ll make the computer do it for you.

I have a vision of a computer, for example, that will let me throw anything at it and it will know what to do with it. This has a date on it, and some key words I recognize, so it needs to be added to a chronology, unless it’s in the future in which case it’s probably for the calendar.

In my wildest dreams I imagine a computer that just lets me start drawing on the screen and the computer can figure out I’m drawing a table. That what I put in there is text, but also drawings, calculations, images. Software, in short, that does what I want it to do, rather than what it thinks I should do.

That, in short, was my mistake on the Tottenham Court Road. I thought that thing I saw in the window was an intelligence, a thing that make me more productive at how I was already working, or wanted to work,

Turns out I was wrong. Turns out it was just a souped-up typewriter. Turns out that unless we all become programmers, we’ll never actually bend computers to our will.

And, yes, 23 years on, I still haven’t found a program that lets me add, sort and filter chronologies easily. I’m still looking though. Disappointed, but looking.

12. April 2010 by jeremy
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