THE COMPUTER: Friend or Acquaintance
S. Leigh Russell
answers your questions about computers
Q: What's all this about computers?
A: Computers are invading our lives. Everywhere you look, there's
a computer. It's very bad.
Q: Should we be afraid of computers?
A: Yes. Let me give you an example. Bob (not his real name) was
walking home one day. It was growing dark. Strange shadows
appeared at the edge of his vision, strange noises filled the
air. Suddenly he saw it. A microcomputer, straight ahead, the
menacing, insolent look in its tape drive characteristic of
the Hewlett Packard 3000. Slowly it wheeled toward him, wires
waving like snakes. And then...well, I won't shock you with
the details. Not a pretty story, eh?
Q: Yes, but don't you think we would be less afraid of computers if
we only understood them better?
Q: I see. Do you think a computer will someday take my job away
A: Yes. It might even be this week. Computers can perform billions
of instructions while you're hanging around the coffee machine,
trillions of instructions while you're out to lunch. And,
unlike you, they don't make mistakes.
Q: But I've often heard that a computer is only as smart as its
programmer. Is that true?
A: No. A computer is much smarter than its programmer. You
should hear what computers say about programmers at cocktail
Q: I am sometimes confused by computer terminology....
A: I'm not surprised.
Q: Can you define some of these terms for me? For example, what is
the difference between "software" and "hardware"?
A: These two terms are very common in computer jargon, yet very
few people understand what they really mean. "Software" refers
to a programmer's undergarments. "Hardware" refers to the
programmer's belt, shoes, briefcase, purse, jewelry, watch, etc.,
in other words, the "hard" objects the person "wares". "Hardware"
is sometimes extended to describe the funny hats or lampshades
worn at computer office parties, as in, "Hey, Alice, you got a
disk drive on your head." The distinction in important because
in the early days of computers (like last week) computer
professionals often became confused when getting dressed in the
morning and tried to wear their underwear on their feet.
Q: I see. What about silicon chips? What are they?
A: Silicon chips are part of what's generally called "microelectronics"
or "teensy weensy" electronics. How they work is, well, they sort
of change shape when you, uh, it's kind of a chemical thing like,
you know, er, and, you have to have this laboratory and, um, pretty
soon you have a pocket calculator. It's really very simple.
Q: How much information can you store on a silicon chip?
A: A single silicon chip, about the size of a hydrogen atom, can
store more information than is presently contained in the
Library of Congress, the Pentagon, the Ohio State University
library system, and the second floor of King Library (not including
the information written on the walls in the bathrooms). A silicon
chip is much smarter than you will ever be.
Q: What about Silicon Valley, Route 128, and Research Triangle?
What are they?
A: These are the hot places for computer geniuses to work, in
California, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, respectively.
These places are famous for sprouting small computer companies
with innovative management (i.e., none). People in these
places change jobs an average of twice a week and make more
money than Reggie Jackson. You will never work there.
Q: Is it true that even at Miami there are computers?
A: Yes, Miami has several computers. These computers run the
payroll, register the students, keep the records, grade the
tests, issue the visitation violations, enforce the no-car
rule, and go uptown on Thursday night. These computers make
most of the decisions the administration takes credit for.
Q: I understand President Pearson has committed Miami to "computer
literacy" by 1986. What does he mean by that?
A: He means that by 1986, our computers will be able to read and
Q: Are Miami students interested in computers?
A: Yes. Our major in "systems analysis" is so popular that no one
can enroll in it.
Q: Let me ask just one more thing. Isn't it true that although
the computer is an important tool, what the world really needs
is people who can read, write, and think? ANd isn't it true
that while we need people who are trained technically we should
also be sure these people understand what this technology
means and how we can best use it? Shouldn't we remember that
computers are not art, history, philosophy, literature, or
science, and that they can never replace our decidedly human
search for knowledge? Aren't computers in fact a means to an end
rather than an end to themselves?
Q: Oh. It was just a thought. Sorry.
A: That's OK. You lost your head.