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No, the Computer Isnít Smarter than I Am!

"I did what you told me to do last week," Jake said, turning back to his keyboard. "But it didnít work. Look, Iíll show you."

I watched him fumble with the word processing program until he suddenly threw up his hands. "See," he said, leaning back in his chair. "That happens every time."

"Oh, yes, I see. Whatís happening is that you chose the font menu before you selected your text. You have to select it first." I waited for him to try again. At the crucial point, he started to click on the menu. "Wait," I said, "select your text first."

"Oh, yes. I forgot. Iím just not smart enough for this machine." He dragged the cursor on the monitor across his text and then clicked on the menu. The rest of the maneuver worked as we expected.

"There you go. Now see, you can do it."

"Yeah. I keep forgetting." He scribbled some notes on a paper next to the keyboard.

Similar situations happen a lot as I coach people in the senior citizens computer lab. A computer is a terribly frustrating machineóto nearly everyone, at times, but especially to beginners. They assume that since everybody uses computers, everybody except them is smart enough. As we get older, our mental processes slow down. But that isnít the real problemóthe real problem is our loss of confidence.

I remember learning to drive a car by sighting across the hood ornament to the right-hand edge of the road. Without those guides, I couldnít stay in my lane. Eventually, of course, I found that I was using the hood ornament less and less, and sensing where the whole vehicle was in relation to the road. I didnít have to focus so tightly on details, and could pay more attention to the environment I was inóultimately, the most important variable in driving.

Learning to write with a computer is much the same. At first, we have to pay attention to too many details in order to avoid botching the whole thing up. A pen and yellow pad is indeed a simpler set of tools. When I bought my first computer, it was fortunate that I enjoyed the intricate nature of the machine. I experimented a lot before depending on it to be my smart typewriter. Somehow I never (well, almost never) felt that I didnít have the skill or the intelligence to make it do what I wanted it to do. (Actually, I sold to a computer magazine one of my first articles, describing that horrible frustration of not knowing which way to turn when the machine simply seemed to have a mind of its own. And it was clearly in charge.) That was thirty years ago.

In an introductory class I took back in those early days, the instructor told us that wherever we were in our learning about computers, whether we knew it or not, we were only about fifteen minutes from being an "expert." Such a ridiculous notion took a while for me to understand what he was suggesting: the detail that was currently blocking us from what we were trying to do was always a little thing. Beyond it was the world. A computer scientist also runs into just such blocks. And yes, just beyond that little block will be another little block. The thing that holds us back is our lack of confidence. Unlike much of the rest of our lives, computers present us with only little steps to climb.

In a recent interview published in The Sun, Jaron Lanier, one of the foremost scientists working with computerized virtual reality, the basis for most computer games, criticizes what he calls "cybernetic totalism." Thatís the assumption that the human mind and the computer differ only in relative complexity. "When a bad user interface [that is, the part of the machine that the user consciously deals with] is labeled Ďintelligent,í some people could think itís like a valuable abstract painting: hard to understand because itís so ingenious. The more the program fails to make sense, the more they might think, Wow, this must be very smart. I think most successful artificial-intelligence experiments essentially have that character: people confuse inscrutability with a brilliance thatís beyond them. The irony is that a computer you canít communicate with ceases to be useful as a tool."

Programmers have made personal computers much easier to communicate with in thirty years. Thatís a fact. And those who now choose to try to use these remarkable tools include many people who are not the curious nerds we use to be. Frustration sometimes leads to abandoning the battleóone has better things to do with oneís time. Underlying that decision, however, is often a feeling that we canít do it. A nerd like me canít let go of a problem just because it seems unsolvable at the moment. Regular people, however, want to use a computer to do something they choose, not something the computer chooses. Thatís a major challenge for those who design the machines and the programs that run on them. As sophisticated as computers might be at the moment, they have a long way to go to allow the beginner to work at her or his own pace without machine-made stumbling blocks.

Still, the average person can learn how to use them. A six-year-old has to train his muscles in order to keep a bicycle upright. At first it seems overwhelming. Whatís important is believing that one can do it. An older person who wants to use a computer to communicate with people over the Internet, or to write letters or essays or recipes on a computer, mainly has to keep his or her confidence. Taking small steps at first is key. Writing things down so that the next time one doesnít have to learn all over again is also important to most of us. Eventually, of course, making the same mistake over and over will result in learning, as well, just as I eventually learned to follow a road while driving a car without sighting across the hood ornament. (Good thing, too, because a few years later the hood ornament went the way of all design features.) Tenacity is vital.

Like the automobile, the computer has had a profound effect on our society, and thereís no one who knows for sure where it will lead us. No, thatís not accurate. It wonít lead us, it will follow us. A computer is as dumb as a light switch, only a bit more complicated. Something else: It will do only what we tell it to do (in spite of what we think when it does something we didnít expect). If we didnít see how it can be useful to us, bit by bit, weíd abandon it as we have abandoned the horse and buggy.

My advice to those encountering the computer for the first few times: start small. Learn how to type something simple, like a letter, and learn how to save it so that you donít have to type it over again if you make a mistake. Stay with it, and soon youíll want to make it do something more. That's good. Remember to save often. Show it whoís boss.

May 9, 2005

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