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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 suddenly.

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 know.

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 difference anymore!