Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 03/85 item 01 - scanned

A LIFE SPOILED BY COMPUTERS (column)

Regular readers of this column, if there are any, will know that I quite often turn my attention to the dangers of placing too much trust in computers. Usually this has been discussed in the context of Fifth Generation machines or Artificial Intelligence and, while the topic is important enough, the realities are still quite a long way around the corner. Not around the corner, I discover, is an impediment which can be inflicted on its owner by even the lowest level microcomputer. Or, to be truthful, an impediment which the user allows the microcomputer to inflict.

To get the story under way, let's kick off with a description of a popular type of software, the all-singing, all-dancing personal assistant type of product. You know the sort of thing - it takes care of your diary, your notebook and gives you a mini-database.

Many programs do that, or can be bent to this sort of task. At first you think "marvellous, now I can be really organised" and, sure enough, you suddenly turn into a SuperPerson. You never forget a thing, not even the most trivial. Your reports are a model of structure and clarity and your productivity soars.

At last you are in control, you have mastery of your life. The computer has fulfilled its promise and freed your mind to think great thoughts, secure in the knowledge that all the mundane stuff is safely tucked away inside your machine. It seems too good to be true. And it is. You will be away from your computer when you first sense that all is not well. You get a sort of hollow anxious feeling inside. The same kind of feeling you get just after your plane takes off and you wonder if you left the cooker on or locked the back door.

For the first time in your life you've had a totally trustworthy assistant, one which remembers every appointment and is party to your innermost secrets and here you are, cast adrift, and once again responsible for your own life. I know, I know. You never weren't responsible were you? Wrong. The minute you started dumping your thoughts into that machine, you were relinquishing control, at least between printouts you were. With the latest printout under your arm you retained some semblance of control.

New activities were added to the printed diary, more notes scribbled in the notebook, more names and telephone numbers added to the database, all ready to be keyed in when you got back to your machine.

Now for a small confession: towards the end of last year I had my entire life running inside an Apricot (I hope you're all in this business, otherwise you'll think I should be committed. On second thoughts, maybe you think that anyway). Notes, Lists of Ideas, Diary, Name and Address Book, Do Lists - the whole lot was in the memory of the Apricot where I could get at it quickly and modify it at will. My machine used to be switched on all day and I'd occasionally leave this program to do other things (word processing usually) but I couldn't wait to scamper back to the security of my on-line life model. It took a few months for this to happen; but one day I realised that if I hadn't put something into the computer then it may as well not have existed. Very subtly, very slowly, I had metamorphosed from the master of my computer to its servant. Never mind Artificial Intelligence or Fifth Generation, this was a twin-drive, 256K Apricot.

I'd look up 14 September, say, and discover that I was due at MicroScope for some meeting or other, that I had to contact half a dozen people to follow up different projects, and maybe give a talk in the evening. I'd perhaps have a note to say "get home as early as possible". If I forgot to mention in the machine that it also happened to be my wife's birthday then the chance of actually getting home early was slim to say the least. Such was the temporarily ridiculous situation I'd got into. In a word I'd not only become an enthusiast for computerising everything, I'd almost let the computer take control of my life.

It's funny isn't it how something intrinsically good like 'improve your memory' or 'crank up your personal productivity' can rebound and almost have the opposite effect. As we make increasing use of computers, so we are in danger of accidentally mistaking for complete reality that sub-set of our world which resides within the machine.