Many years ago, a former editor of this newspaper and I had a good-natured debate over the merits of the computer age. I vehemently argued the negative. My idea of a computer was the villainous Hal in Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. I saw computers turning us into menial servants of their needs rather than the other way around.
I swore I would never let a computer come into my household. My editor saw them merely as a helpful tool that made our lives easier.
As the years passed, with the encouragement of my daughter, I grudgingly moved from a manual to an electric typewriter to a word processor and, finally three years ago, I purchased a computer to do my work. Soon I was no longer writing my columns in longhand at all. I was officially totally dependent on my computer.
I reasoned that my initial hostility to computers was generational. I had been afraid of learning something new. Even the jargon had frightened me. (I still abhor the pollution of our language by computer jargon, and frankly don’t know my hard drive from my CD-Rom.)
Maybe I had been afraid that computers would replace us all. Today I realize that the computer still hasn’t been invented that can enlighten, enrage or move a reader to tears.
My computer functions not only as a super typewriter, but with access to the Internet it has become an important tool in researching the subjects about which I write. Through the use of e-mail, I am able to forward my column to my editor and receive feedback in the twinkling of an eye.
I also am able to keep in touch with friends who live great distances from me, people with whom I had previously lost touch. I am able to file my columns electronically without having to clip a copy from the newspaper. My computer has even allowed me to subscribe to the big-league baseball broadcasts of all the teams — a fact for which my wife, no doubt, gives great thanks.
Last weekend, I learned just how dependent I had become on my computer when it had to go into the repair shop In cleaning out my back-room closet, I had gotten rid of my electric typewriter and word processor. I am back to writing this column in longhand, erasing and crossing out faulty sentences that my computer would have deleted easily for me.
This seemed like a good time to reassess my initial fear of computers.
By mastering the computer at least to the extent that it was now a useful tool, I had avoided becoming obsolete. Somewhere my former editor is smiling as he reads this. My more youthful readers are probably also smirking. You have earned the right to do so. The computer, if it could be embraced by my generation, could become a bridge that eliminates the generation gap. That is certainly an essential definition of progress.
Yet I have an uneasy feeling. I have become one of those who cannot live without the gadgetry of modern living. When my computer went down, I had a helpless feeling. It was difficult to return to the way I functioned before my dependence on the computer. You would have thought I had been robbed of the ability to communicate.
And in a sense I had. Recently we saw firsthand what havoc can be brought about by a hacker sitting alone in his room. Some people have lost their financial identities buying merchandise online. Spam proliferates and has become another modern-day annoyance. Pedophiles seek out our children through online chat rooms.
Not all of my fears about computers were groundless, but there is an essential point on which I was wrong. The computer is just a tool. The computer has not become Kubrick’s Hal. Humans determine whether it is used for the benefit or detriment of humankind.
And right now, I sure miss mine.