QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Computing for Those Who Can't Stand Bill Gates

I have a conflict over computers.On one hand, I detest how these machines are changing the world. Computers are a powerful tool for the centralization of power. In the hands of corporate managers and government bureaucrats, computers can easily become instruments of human oppression. In the name of increased "productivity," too many of us give up our privacy, our civil rights and even our health and happiness.On the other hand, when used with care and awareness, computers are tools that can enable individuals to amplify their skills and talents. In the right hands, computers can be a decentralizing force. With a connection to the Internet, a computer offers its user an unfiltered window to a world of diverse information. For all of its pitfalls and limitations, the Internet remains the only uncensored electronic mass communications medium on the planet.When I watch neo-Luddite writer Kirkpatrick Sale smash a computer with a sledge hammer before a cheering audience, I'm exhilarated by what at first appears to be a grand act of liberation. However, upon reflection, I realize it's no more than an exquisite piece of performance art. Sale's livelihood is as dependent on computers as virtually everyone else in this society.Sale might refuse to personally use a computer in the act of writing, but in the end a computer is used to deliver his words to his readers. It's a simple fact of life in the late 1990s: virtually no publication -- be it a book or a simple pamphlet -- is created without the help of a computer. Sale's act makes for a good show, but, in the end, it's meaningless.A more intellectually honest philosophy might be just to work responsibly with the tools available to you in your own time. From the quill to the pencil to the typewriter to the laptop, writers have done this through the ages.Would Henry David Thoreau, who worked in his family's pencil making business, have rejected a laptop at Walden Pond had it been available to him? Reading of his fascination with technology, I suspect not. And, had he used such a device to compose and store his words, I suspect it would not have diminished his perceptions of the world around him by one whit. (Well, maybe he would have seen "simplicity" in a different light.)Luckily for Thoreau, Bill Gates wasn't around in the 1850s to tinker with the pencil. I can envision the ad now: "Just released, the new Pencil Office 2000, which will not only sharpen itself, but will force you to spell correctly, file your important documents AND balance your checkbook."Therein lies the problem. To keep the economic wheels endlessly spinning, corporations spew out technology for technology's sake. Because we CAN do it, we MUST do it. Ignore the fact that virtually no one needs or even wants it. We gotta sell, sell, sell to maintain growth in the next quarter.It's the curse of the computer age. Hardware and software is designed for the benefit of corporations, not individuals. The bloated, complicated, expensive programs sold by Bill Gates' Microsoft Corporation are an extension of the corporate mind. The design goal is corporate wealth, not the needs of people.Steve Jobs, father of the most people-oriented computer ever built -- the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, sees truly useful computer products as a triumph of taste. Such taste is a commodity that's in short supply at Microsoft and is the reason they "make really third-rate products," Jobs said last year in "Triumph of the Nerds," a TV documentary about the computer industry. "The only problem with Microsoft," Jobs said, "is they just have no taste."Whether its a matter of taste or simply a disconnection with people, typical personal computers today have little in common with the elegance and functionality most of us demand in good tools. "You want to use (today's computers) as boat anchors. People should really revolt. I think we should take up arms," said Dr. Michael L. Dertouzos, head of the computer laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a recent interview with the New York Times.Computers are simply too complicated, said Dr.Dertouzos. They have too many features and they often take charge, overruling the desires of their users. Calling today's computers "user friendly" because of their endless choice of fonts and screen patterns, said Dr. Dertouzos, "is tantamount to dressing a chimpanzee in a green hospital gown and earnestly parading it as a surgeon."As a writer, I'm compelled to use a computer in my work. (Yes, like Sale, I could choose to write pen to paper, but someone else would have to transcribe my words since virtually all publications today demand electronic texts. I've chosen not to engage in such a specious intellectual exercise.)However, I have chosen to reject the Microsoft philosophy of computing. Instead, I've pursued a "minimalist" approach to computers that serves my needs, saves me money and makes my working life a lot easier. This path to least resistance is something that has evolved with me during a period of growing frustration with today's ever-changing crop of PCs.Since the introduction of Apple's first Macintosh over a decade ago, I've primarily used the Mac platform for my daily work. I liked its ease of use, intuitive icons and basic reliability. However, in recent years, I've become increasingly disenchanted with the Mac's unstable and problem-prone performance. I also despise the forced obsolescence of computers caused by the constant race to make them more like television. Though I still own and use a Mac, my dependence on it is gradually diminishing.Instead, I recently chose -- almost by accident -- a far simpler computing platform for much of my work. It's Newton, the recent Apple spin off. Forget what you know if it from the past. Newton's new MessagePad 2000 is a remarkable 1.5 pound portable computer that does virtually everything I need to do. It's elegant, intuitive and so simple to use that it brings back memories of those early Macs "for the rest of us."The Newton MessagePad costs about a $1,000, runs for weeks on a single set of AA batteries, and can be easily operated anywhere. Because the Newton operating software and its applications are written for a very small computer, they are by necessity compact and without frills. One could even describe the Newton as Gates-proof!While many computer geeks (and the computer press) may find this a limitation, I find it a refreshing breath of fresh air. The Newton, whether by necessity or intelligent design, has reduced the personal computer to the level of a no-frills personal appliance. The Newton is one of the very few computers I've encountered that does its job and does it with such simple, problem-free elegance -- just as any classic tool should.This is not a plug for the Newton Messagepad. It's a plug for the design philosophy of the Newton. People who build computers should study the Newton's "minimalist" approach that allows one to write, calculate, file, store, e-mail, web surf and play on a machine that doesn't demand conformity from its owner.Then maybe, just maybe, humans and computers might find a little more in common. I think we've all put up with the tactics of Bill Gates for long enough.


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