Professional Skipper – July 2001 issue          back to articles menu

“Computers…Bark worse than Byte?”

Our children are growing up with technology – particularly the PC - that, in the 50’s, science fiction writers hardly dared to dream of. But what of the grown-up children? Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf – so afraid you won’t even try?  Or have you convinced yourself that you are somehow isolated, protected from the effects of advancing technology?

It’s Sunday morning (early) and my three year old is watching Sleeping Beauty for the 323rd time. It’s a ‘video’, feeding into something called a ‘TV’. Can you imagine taking this equipment back into the 1920’s, to the time of the ‘silver screen’ and ‘talking pictures’?  I wonder whether you’d be seen as a God or imprisoned as an alien from outer space…

It’s not easy writing this story with one eye watching the Wicked Witch concoct a nasty potion, one hand working the occasional spoonful of porridge into the mouth of a mesmerised child, and the other eye and hand operating a notebook balanced on your knee. Oh, I forgot to mention. I’m writing this on a Toshiba 440 CDT notebook – about 3 years old, already a combat veteran and almost obsolete.  My notebook is part of me, and never far away, but it’s due for replacement soon, since it can’t handle the software and graphics I need to maintain our company’s website.  Software? Graphics? Website?

I consider myself part of a lucky group, not a big group either, a sub-group really, of the ‘chronologically gifted’ (middle-aged) set who were forced to embrace computer technology just as it started to take off in the mid-80’s, lucky enough to work for a company who sent me on my first one-day computer training course in 1985, and then allowed me time to experiment at work, since I along with thousands of others could not afford a ‘personal computer’, otherwise known as the PC. I’ve only attended one ‘training course’ since then and it was a complete waste of time. Everything else I have learned has been through reading the manuals and experimentation – but that’s just me, we all learn in different ways.

In some ways I could draw a parallel with the fact that at age 19, my mate and I reconditioned a 1953 Ford 10 motor in his Dad’s garage, and for the bits where we didn’t know what we were doing, we had a manual! With photo’s!  These days I look under the bonnet of my Mitsubishi Diamante and I recognise the battery, radiator, intakes, exhaust… er… and that’s about it. So I drive the car, only having a rough idea of what’s going on under the bonnet. I consider myself a competent, safe, driver. As we all do…

Anyway, back to computers. Let’s agree something – the adult population out there ranges from complete ignorance about computers, to being expert software programmers and hardware technicians. Where are you on that scale?

Something I can tell you, from my profession, is that the number of unskilled jobs in NZ has fallen by 60% in the last 20 years, yet we are still churning out unskilled – illiterate – young people from our schools, who then compete with mature unskilled and illiterate workers for an ever–reducing number of positions in the job market. Take a look at the ‘Sits Vac’ in your local paper. Better yet – go have a look in your own wheelhouse (if you have one) or go look in someone else’s, and take in the array of electronic wizardry in a modern wheelhouse. Even your basic long-liner has a colour depth-sounder masquerading as a fish-finder, and the more affluent have an autopilot and a radar, while the carefree rich will add GPS and then software to hook the autopilot, the radar, and the GPS together. Tongue in cheek, but one has to wonder how, with all this gear, some of us still manage to park vessels on large, conspicuous lumps of land…perhaps it’s localised continental drift. “I swear the island moved, yer Honour.”

For any of you out there who have yet to embrace a keyboard, let me say this. After 15 years of stumbling around on one, I know about half of what my notebook PC is capable of. I will never know all of it, and I’ve stopped trying to, or worrying about it. I’m about to buy a new one, ten times faster in ‘thinking speed’, and I’ll never know more than about 50% of its true capability. I’ve designed and ‘put up’ a business website for my company of over 150 pages (not flash, but practical), and I maintain it myself. I communicate by email. I’ve learned by reading, trial and error, and enthusiasm. I know what the buttons do. I have absolutely no idea how the buttons do it, I don’t need to know, and I don’t want to know. I am a hands-on kind of bloke. Don’t tell me about it – show me, then let me have a go. Or give me a plain language manual with pictures and a logical flow and leave me to it. I failed algebra at school, because it was stupid and irrelevant and I couldn’t understand it. I enjoyed Geometry and Trigonometry because you could work out how high something was, or how far away it was, or the right course to steer.

My question is: How many of you are like me, but haven’t mastered the PC yet because (1) you don’t think you need to, or (2) you’re worried that you won’t be able to master it.

Think on this: The number of Senior Citizen ‘chat rooms’ on the Internet quadruples every 3 months, and at last count (estimate only) there were over 12,000 such clubs worldwide. That represents an estimated 500,000 senior citizens (over 60’s) who have ‘mastered’ the PC to the extent that they can turn it on, get the right programme up, hook on to the phone line, and hit the right buttons to ‘talk’ to others. Most people use PC’s to type letters and do their accounts. To that extent the PC is simply a glorified typewriter and calculator rolled into one, with a TV screen to watch it on. You don’t have to know how the button does what it does. You just need to know which one to hit. I will say however, that to relegate a PC to that limited use, is to ignore the Internet and its power to provide limitless knowledge. Knowledge is power.

Bill Gates designed his programmes to be operated by people like me, who represent the other half of the population that leans to the creative rather than the technical. There’s only thing he hasn’t yet done, and I wish he would do it soon. Every now and then you’ll get a message on screen that says, “The grortwurzel on the bracdeeizer needs to be refragged. Do you want to do this?” and then gives you only 2 options – “Yes” and “No”. I want Bill to give me another button that says “Stuffed if I know – do what makes you feel good”.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.                                                                                                                       back to articles menu