The Art of Computer Upmanship
In the Olden Days -- 1978 or so -- only the initiated few were capable of carrying on a conversation about computers. These men (I never saw a woman in the group) would form a little cluster at social gatherings and mutter things like "RAM bzz bzz CRT bzz bzz CP/M bzz bzz HPIL bzz bzz." And everyone in the immediate vicinity would be terribly impressed. (Or terribly bored. But that's a different column.)Then IBM brought out the PC, Apple followed with "the computer for the rest of us," and by now even your mother knows how to use a word processor (or at least mine does). This (the computer explosion -- not my mother) has made it tough to look impressive. Just knowing about computers is no longer sufficient; everyone else knows as much as you do. So if you want to amaze your colleagues, astonish your friends, and hold your own against twelve-year-olds, you must learn to master the fine art of computer upmanship.To achieve computer upmanship, it's best to begin with hardware. This does not necessarily mean having the biggest, the fastest, or even the newest. After all, a battered Harris tweed jacket, circa 1965, has infinitely more cachet than a 1996 Armani suit. Or it can, if you know how to carry it off properly. Let's say a friend is crowing over his recent purchase: a freshly-minted WarpMonster IVcix. Hide the fact that you're drooling with envy. Nod knowingly and reply "Yes, I looked at one of those. But, you know, when it comes right down to it, my trusty old Mac II has held up remarkably well over the years. Especially with the modified framwidget interface that I kludged together back in 1989. And don't you think those new random-bit multiprocessors on your machine's motherboard are just a tad dicey? Of course, I'm sure you read that article on the TechnoWeenie web site, so you know what you're doing. Anyway, I don't blame you for taking a chance -- the WarpMonster is a snazzy little toy. Enjoy it." Your friend won't have heard of either framwidgets or random-bit multiprocessors (mainly because you just invented them) and will wander off to find a drink, feeling vaguely disconcerted. One up for you.Now that you've demonstrated the superiority of your hardware , you can move on to software. Never mind that you only use your computer to send e-mail notes to your kids in college, and that you can't tell a spreadsheet from a bedsheet. The key to software upmanship is to avoid discussing what a program actually does, thus obscuring the fact that you've never actually used it. For instance, if a colleague starts pontificating on the intricacies of Adobe Photoshop (a program so complex it took my artist friend Susan the better part of last summer to learn it), blithely interrupt with: "Yeah, that's definitely this year's killer app, but I'm waiting until they release the new version before I play with it." Bingo. Software upmanship in only 21 carefully-chosen words. The phrase "this year's killer app" suggests that you have been keeping abreast of all the killer apps to hit the market since 1983. A killer app, by the way, is the computer industry's equivalent of a blockbuster movie. If you develop one, you get to be as rich as Croesus (though not nearly as rich as Bill Gates). Waiting for "the new version" is always a safe bet, since software companies start developing a new version as soon as the current one is out the door. If you happen to know a version number, all the better, especially if you casually drop in the little interim-release decimals (as in "I'm still using Word 5.1a, until they get the bugs ironed out of 6.0.2"). Finally, announcing your intent to "play" with the program puts you firmly in the ranks of the elite. No serious technodweeb "uses" a piece of software. He plays, fiddles, tinkers, putters, or futzes around with it. The implication is that merely by playing he will master the entire program in one-tenth the time it takes us ordinary mortals to decipher the first page of the user manual.A final point about computer upmanship. You may have noticed that I used the masculine pronoun throughout this column. That's because I've never seen a woman play this game. We don't particularly talk about computers -- we just use them to create art, design buildings, write novels, and build financial models. I suspect it has something to do with testosterone.