Wednesday, March 20

How computer-friendly are you?

What makes computers so compelling? Why do we spend so many waking hours locked in their embrace? Is it the sense of power they afford? After all –– unlike other people –– they (almost) invariably do our bidding, and hardly ever tire or make any demands of their own.

Thirty-odd years ago, I taught myself to type on an Olivetti Lettera 22. Twenty years ago, with word-processing, I was a more productive typist. Soon I had my own computer, of sorts. I shared it with my elder son, who played games and sometimes did his homework on it.

Still, my emotions remained unattached. It was a machine that helped me do my duty efficiently, and little else. It hardly gave me any sense of power, or affected the rest of my life. I was only too happy to turn it off after a duty session. It was ensconced in the compartment of my mind and life labelled ‘work’ –– still, basically, a glorified typewriter. The intricate details of what went on inside the computer left me cold (and still do).

Getting e-mail and an Internet connection in 1996 started a process that has now made computing a pivot of my existence. I began (covertly –– even now I’m embarrassed to admit it, although there are many millions like me) to get emotionally involved with the machine. It overtook television as my main source of entertainment, as well as education. When it comes to reading, I still prefer snuggling down in bed with a book, I think . . . (but how come I don’t do it more often, then?)

Now, after all these years, the computer and I are close –– wonderfully compatible (on the whole). It looks as if I’m in love: I gaze at the screen, entranced, for hours. Often, I find it hard to drag myself away. At any given moment, my position on the work–play continuum is indefinable. What am I doing here now, working or playing? Work has come to resemble play, and my play is converging with my work. Does that reduce the value of either, or both?

The computer is far more than an indispensable tool. It brings the world to my desk, connecting me with individuals all over the world and multiplying the number of people I'm in touch with many times over. Socially and emotionally, for better and for worse, my life is now inextricably tied up with my computer. And my younger son seems to be following suit.

But there’s still more. My behaviour isn’t entirely rational. There’s something inherently compelling, even seductive, about sitting here –– reading, reflecting and (perhaps above all) tapping out my thoughts –– hour after hour. I am the computer, the computer is me –– we seem to merge. Who needs cyberkinetics and implanted electrodes? In a sense, I'm there already. Undeniably, the object has become an addiction, an alter ego and a friend. Is it a substitute for, or a supplement to, real friendship and communication? Something to welcome or withstand? Where is it all leading? I don’t know –– what about you?