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TEXT I. WORRY ABOUT COMPUTERS? ME?

 

1. When your computer is turn off, it is a dead collection of sheet metal, plastic, metallic tracings, and tiny flakes of silicon. When you hit On switch, one little burst electricity – only about 5 volts – starts a string of events that magically brings to life what otherwise would remain an oversize paperweight.

2. At first the PC is still rather stupid. Beyond taking inventory of it self, the newly awakened PC still can’t anything really useful, intelligent. At best it can search, for intelligence in the form of operating system that gives structure to the PC’s primitive existence. Then comes a true education in the form of application software – programs that tell it how to do tasks faster and more accurately than we could, a student who has outstripped its teacher.

3. What makes your PC such miraculous device is that each time you turn it on, it is a tabula rasa, capable of doing anything your creativity – or, more usually, the creativity of professional programmers – can imagine for it to do. It is a calculating machine, a magical typewriter, an unerring accountant, and a host of other tools. To transform it from one persona to another requires setting some of the microscopic switches buried in the hearts of the microchips, a task accomplished by typing a command in DOS prompt or by clicking with your mouse on some tiny icon on the screen.

4. Such intelligence is fragile and short – lived. All those millions of microscopic switches are constantly flipping on and off in time to dashing surges of electricity. All it takes is an errant instruction or a stray misreading of a single chip to send this wonderfully intelligent golem into a state of catatonia or hit the Off switch and what was a pulsing artificial life dies without a whimper. Then the next time you turn it on, birth begins all over again.

5. PCs are powerful creations that often seem to have a life of their own. Usually they respond to a seemingly magic incantation typed as a C:>prompt or to wave of a mouse by performing tasks we couldn't imagine doing ourselves without some sort of preternatural help. There are the times when our PCs rebel and open the gates of chaos onto our neatly ordered columns of numbers, our carefully made sentences, and our beautifully crafted graphics. Are we playing with power not entirely under our control?



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6. A middle-aged woman sat down at a personal computer for the first time in her life. She placed her hands above the keyboard, ready to type — but hesitated. Turning, to the instructor, she asked warily: "It won't know what I'm thinking, will it?" Such concerns abound among people whose knowledge of computers comes from movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which Hal, the computer with the sticky-sweet voice, tries to take control of the spaceship). Terms such as computer anxiety, and computer phobia have entered our language to describe such wariness. Many people try to avoid situations in which they might be forced into contact with computers. Even businesspeople who deal with computers daily may experience a form of cyberphobia — fear of computers. As a result of their fear, some office workers who are cyberphobic suffer nausea, sweaty palms, and high blood pressure. Young people who have grown up with computers may not understand these reactions.

7. What are such people afraid of? Some may worry about the mathematical implications of the word computer. It seems to suggest that only a person with strong analytical and quantitative skills can use the machine. In fact, as we see more and more often, even very young children whose math skills have yet to form can use computers.

8. Some people are fearful of the computing environment. The movies love to portray old-fashioned, large computer systems — sanitized rooms walled by machines alive with blinking lights and spinning reels; it all looks intimidating. There is a notion that computers are temperamental gadgets and that, once a glitch gets into a computer system, it may wreak all kinds of havoc — from fouling up bank statements to launching nuclear missiles by mistake. Indeed, computer billing and banking errors are problems; however, most errors blamed on computers are the result of mistakes made by people. Computers do not put in the data they must work with, people do. Even so, correcting an error can be frustratingly slow.

9. Many people worry about computers in relation to their jobs. Some people doubt they have the skills to find jobs and keep them in a technological labor market. Many feel that keeping up with the swift pace of technological change is impossible because it requires costly and continuous training and development. A good many present-day executives whose companies have installed computer terminals in their offices also worry about typing - either they do not know how to type or they are afraid they will lose status if they use a keyboard.

10. Interestingly, there is another side to computer anxiety: the fear of being left out or left behind. If everyone around you is talking about, living with, and working around computers, how can you keep from revealing your limited understanding?

11. People are also nervous that computers might fall into the wrong hands. As examples of electronic wrongdoing, try these for size: An "error" purposefully introduced into your computerized credit report by someone who wanted to cause you trouble might do irreparable damage to your financial standing, ending any hopes you might have for owning a home someday. An easily obtainable computerized list might carry personal information that could lead to an invasion of your privacy or at the least, a pile of junk mail. Think of all the forms you have filled out for schools, jobs, doctors, credit services, government offices, and so on. There is scarcely one fact related to you that is not on record in a computer file somewhere. Could unauthorized persons obtain this information?

12. Computer fraud and computer security are not simple issues; they are concerns that society must take seriously. Should we, as computer columnist John Dvorak advocates, let things work themselves out in the courts? Or, should legislators be encouraged to create laws for society's protection?

 


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