Becoming a User
I wrote a while ago about my problems with
'literacy', the feeling of being an adult, and yet unable to function
at the level of even a quite young child. This was of course in
relation to my weak ability at reading and writing Japanese, so I was
somewhat surprised the other day when I was discussing that little
essay with a friend, to learn that he knew exactly how I felt,
because he had the same problem.
This was a surprise to me because I hadn't been
aware that he was trying to learn another language, but that's not
what he had in mind. He was talking about a different kind of
literacy ... computer literacy. He knows absolutely nothing about
computers, but finds that many of the people around him, including
his own children, are not only comfortable with them, but positively
literate! Now a decade or so ago, the idea that he should learn
something about computers had never crossed his mind; computers were
machines for specialists, and they had no part in the daily life of
'common' people. But of course, under the constant bombardment of
media stories in recent years describing computers as essential tools
for life today, he has become thoroughly confused. Multimedia ...
Internet ... CD-ROM ... What is all this stuff about? Do we really
have to learn this? The implicit message he has picked up from this
avalanche of information has been that if you're not computer
literate, you're 'out of it', and would very soon find yourself
unable to do even such simple activities as go shopping or read the
news, as these things will soon all be done by computer.
He sympathized with my problems of learning the
language here, but felt that I had brought them on myself, by
choosing to move to a different country. He, on the other hand, felt
'innocent'; he had done nothing, had not asked for this confusion. To
him it seemed a bit unfair, as though the rules had been changed
Now as it happens, computer literacy is not
something I have a problem with. I got 'on board' the computer train
relatively early, back at the end of the 70's. When the first
microcomputers (as they were then called) came along, I became quite
fascinated with them, and as there seemed no possibility of using
computers in the place where I was then working, I left the job to
spend time studying up on the subject. About a year later, I returned
to the company to design and install a computer system for them,
using one of those early (pre IBM-PC) machines. The company greatly
benefitted from the new system, which greatly improved their
efficiency, and I too benefitted, to the extent that I became quite
fluent in the ins and outs of desktop computers.
But when I left that employment permanently in the
mid-80's to move to Japan and take up the life of a woodblock
printmaker, my association with computers seemed to be at an end.
After all, what possible use could there be for a computer in the job
I was now taking on ... the recreation of a set of 200 year old
prints, using none but 200 year old techniques? Not much.
During the intervening years though, while busy
with this old-fashioned work, I still continued to keep an interested
eye on the development of small computers. Even though my daily work
has no connection to modern technologies, I have not become a
'technophobe', and feel that this new easy access to powerful
computers is one of the most important events in the history of
mankind. But even though I had used computers in my job ... even
though I felt they were important for our lives ... even though I had
children here who could have benefitted from learning about them ...
I didn't buy one for our home. I wasn't interested in having a 'toy'
computer around the house.
Does that make sense? Ten years ago I had felt
that a small computer was sophisticated enough to control a
multi-million dollar business application, but now, even with the
stunning advances in technology that had taken place in the meantime,
I felt that there was no place for one in my home. It does make sense
if you know that my viewpoint ten years ago differed greatly from my
current way of thinking. Then, I was a programmer. Now, I was looking
at things from the point of view of a user.
Programming a computer to make it do what you want
can be a truly fascinating and creative process (if you are so
inclined ...). It can be an interesting and rewarding job, or an
all-consuming hobby. I had enjoyed the programming job I had done
very much, but this was due mostly to my keen interest in the end
product of my work - the improvement of our business operations. Once
that was done though, my interest in creating computer applications
faded. I had no desire to become a full-time programmer creating
systems for other people, people in whose applications I would have
only a passing interest.
I did though, still have a desire to use a
computer. But without a well-defined application in mind, such a
desire means nothing. During that time of working with computers I
had learned a very important thing about choosing and using a
computer - that the first step was to define one's application, the
way in which a computer could be useful to you; the second was to
select (or create) appropriate software (programs) to serve that
application; and the third (and least important) step was to then
choose suitable hardware on which to operate that software. If any of
these three steps were omitted or performed carelessly, or if they
were done out of order, the resulting installation would almost
certainly be a failure, whether it be a massive business system that
would then cause chaos in company operations, or a small home 'hobby'
system, that would soon find itself parked in a closet.
For me, as a potential home user, the process came
to a halt right at step one. I was unable to define a suitable
application for a computer in my home, and without such an
application, I knew that there was no purpose in even thinking about
getting a computer. So for years, about ten years, I gave up on
computers, quit reading computer magazines, and passed by the
computer shops. Was I worried about my computer 'literacy'? Not at
all. Unlike the friend I mentioned a minute ago, I knew enough about
them to know that when they were 'ready', they would come and let me
And some months ago, they came knocking! I was in
a music shop downtown, looking for a new keyboard instrument to
replace the small one on which my daughters had been learning about
music, and saw a demonstration of how a computer could be used to
control a synthesizer in a 'music workbench' system, allowing one to
write music onto the computer screen, and then hear it played back by
the synthesizer. I had known such systems existed, because I had seen
a demonstration of such a thing about fifteen years previously, but
that was in a university research laboratory, and utilized a
room-sized computer, hardly something to keep on my 'wish' list. But
here it was ... not room-sized, but sitting on a desktop ... steps
one, two and three (application, software, and hardware) all wrapped
together, and very reasonably priced.
I didn't buy it immediately, but stepped back a
bit and did some research into which one among the many competing
systems might suit us best. Once I thought I understood the various
options well, I chose the unit I felt to be the most appropriate for
us, and brought it home. Since then, it has provided us with many
happy hours (too many!) of education and entertainment. (I can't
decide which of those two words is the most appropriate!) The music
I've been writing with the assistance of my new computer certainly
isn't going to climb very high in the 'charts', but that's not the
point. I'm having a great deal of fun.
It does feel good to be back involved with
computers again. But I must admit that there is now somewhat of a
'schizophrenic' feel to my life. I spend most of each day living
about two hundred years in the past, carving and printing my
woodblocks, but as soon as I step out of the workroom and sit down in
front of my 'Mac', one tiny 'click' of the mouse brings me zooming
instantly back to the present.
Or is it the future? I can't quite tell the