louis martin
cns news & features

IT'S BEEN A TOUGH Winter this year in Mendocino, and if the storms didn't leave you bummed out, then a new phenomena emerged this Winter that is bound to get you down--the Politics of Computing.

While computers used to get a bad rap by the general public, as did those "nerds" who use them, computers now seem to have shifted over in the public mind from something bad to something good. Something suspiciously too good. The computer, once an object of disrespect, has become a power object worshipped by hordes.

By what means this shift has occurred is not completely known, but it is clear that the computer, or rather the Personal Computer, now enjoys the kind of reputation that fast automobiles once had.

Witness the language: graphic accelerators, enhanced performance, turbo this, turbo that; Power PC, QuickTime, Quicken, and QuarkXpress; the list goes on. Who could care about high octane or rack & pinion steering given the language of the personal computer.

And the strange thing is this: Those who feared or loathed calculators have somehow learned to point and click and are doing so like six-year-olds on a sugar high.

But why go on about this. A letter to the editor of a local newspaper summed it up better than I can. Here is what the letter said:


I recently visited my aunt, who lives in a small town along your beautiful coast. Well, beautiful until recently.

Please let me explain.

My aunt lives in one of those picturesque little towns where everybody knows everybody, and people mostly get along, though they do not always agree on everything. Agreement, apparently, is not necessary, but respect is--respect for the little differences. And maybe that is what makes this little town so special: those little differences. Viva la difference, as the French say, and I think this town, if it spoke French, would say the same.

But I am not writing you to heap praise on small town values; rather, I am sorry to say, I witnessed an amazing transformation of the town during my visit, and it compels me to write and warn others about what could happen to them.

I speak of the decision by the town to purchase a computer for its community center. Better a glue factory in the middle of town than the turmoil caused by this decision.

While the town has had differences of opinion before over such issues as logging, water rights, and sewage treatment, nothing can compare to the rancor of the Apple vs. IBM conflict.

You see, citizens had been quietly purchasing computers for some time, so that in fact they had about the same number of computers as they had guns and chain saws. Some had bought Apples, just as some had bought Husqvarna chain saws and Remington shot guns, while others had bought IBM computers or "compatibles" and Stihl chain saws and Winchesters carbines.

While guys with Remingtons still went hunting with guys with Winchesters, the Apple vs. IBM issue seemed to be a deeper issue; like those of gender and life style, it had a more divisive edge to it. Fortunately, people did not go out into the woods computing together, though one logger did point out that network compatibility could become a future issue.

The bitterness of the initial hurdle--to go Apple or IBM--could be plainly heard at the town meeting that was held the second week of my visit with my aunt. She had warned me not to attend the meeting, but I did anyway. To be honest, I have a somewhat perverse nature that relishes being witness to occasional ugly squabbles.

The first skirmish occurred when the grammar school teacher rose from her folding metal chair, cleared her throat, looked furtively around, and asked, "What about ease of use?"

"WHAT ABOUT IT?" shot back a middle-aged man, rising from his chair and glaring at the teacher, who had braced herself by grabbing the back of the chair in front of her. The middle-aged man was a grocery clerk--Mr. Samuels, a widower--who was usually the soul of kindness and concern. It was strange to hear such anger in Mr. Samuel's voice; it reminded me of a rabid dog I had once seen attack a chicken.

"My students," she said hesitating, "my students have been raised on Apples, they know Apples. Why should they have to switch to Big Blue or one of his sleazy clones? Big Blue could care less about me or my students."

The argument was true in a way; Apple had given away millions of dollars in computers to schools to gain that market. As to how much Apple personally cared about the school teacher and her students, I have my doubts.

"So are we going to stick everyone in town with an inferior computing platform?" shot back the grocery clerk, who had apparently been reading PC World when he was not selling groceries.

"The Power IC can outperform the Pentium and doesn't drop bits in floating-point arithmetic," countered the teacher, who had also been reading.

"Bull shit," shouted the clerk. "A 90 megahertz Pentium . . ."

Well, the next day at the grocery store you can bet the grammar school teacher said nothing to the clerk who silently rang up her bill, omitting even "That going to be if for you?" before totaling the register.

The sad thing is that there were exchanges like this all over town, followed by silences and ugly looks between people who had known each other for years.

Finally after three weeks of deadlock by the community board, it was decided to bring in an impartial mediator from another town--a sheep rancher from Little River who hated computers. After listening to all sides for a day and a half, he excused himself from behind the table where he had sat like a judge at the community center, went to the restroom, and flipped a coin. The Pentium won.

"It seems to me that the Pentium is a fine computer," announced the sheep rancher to the board. "It's fast," he said in the way of explanation, "and that counts when there are predators around. I think you are among predators here." Privately he told himself they could all go to hell, and he went home.

With that settled, the town began to loosen up a little, but the worst was yet to come.

While small talk resumed among the Apples and IBMers, clubs formed and factions developed. At first there were only two clubs, the Reds and the Blues. But soon the Reds and the Blues split off into smaller groups as differences of opinion were discovered in the parent organizations. Not every Red, it was found, believed that AppleShare Pro was any better than AppleShare 4.0.2; and not every Blue believed that Windows was thumbs-up-better than OS/2.

But even worse than division into Red AppleShare Pros and Red AppleShare 4.0.2ers was the emergence of "experts" in all areas. A simple people that had once gone into the woods together to cut tress and shoot deer, irrespective of chain saw or gun manufacturer preference, spawned overnight an arrogant generation of quibbling computer gurus.

The days of fighting over nothing, or next to nothing, ended. Now tavern fights could always be traced back to some slighting remark about minimal memory size, port configuration, modem handshake protocol, or the Internet. The worst fights were probably over the Internet, the world-wide network of over 30-million computer users that some said brought the world closer together.

All it took was some off-hand comment about TelNet, the Internet program that allows a user to dial up another computer system and to log on just like another computer at that site, to begin a scuffle that would end with the a call to the Sheriff, arrests, and an ambulance.

ONE EVENING, three weeks after the resolution of the Apple vs. IBM controversy by the Little River sheep rancher, my aunt and I ventured out for a sip of sherry at the local tavern. We sat at a window table not far from the bar, and my aunt, who is president of the local California Wildflower Society, began talking about Clintonia Andrewsian and those impressively large blue berries that it produces.

"A most unusual shade of blue," said my aunt. "In the redwood forest it appears almost turquoise . . ."

At the small bar Father Mahoney was sipping a pint of pale ale and conversing with the local garage mechanic, Bart Grissom. While my aunt stared out the window into the garden--her attention snagged on some plant there, I'm sure--I heard Father Mahoney say: "And the beauty of it is, all you have to do is click on the Cross and the entire readings for Lent pop up . . . ."

Bart, who had just purchase an Apple Performa, did not look too impressed. "Well, I don't know Father," he said but stopped himself, not wanting to mix religion and computing.

Just then the door opened and The Tuck--Steve Tucker, the son of a wealthy rancher--walked in. The Tuck had gone to college and now managed the local hardware store. While away at college, The Tuck had learned to click and point, and considered himself pretty handy with a mouse. He had also become an avid reader of PC World, and had begun to sell software at the hardware store. Recently he had set up a small display between the snail poison and the ax handles. But PC software only--that is MicroSoft products for IBM-compatible computers. Privately he had told Mitch the barber that he wouldn't touch Apple with a ten foot pole. And Mitch, the soul of discretion, had privately told every other male in town that The Tuck wouldn't touch Apple with a ten foot pole. He had also added something about surgical gloves as well.

Now The Tuck was also planning to run for mayor in the next election, and this had turned computing into more that factions, feuding, and unusual personal opinion. Computing became political as well.

"Good evening, Father Mahoney," said the Tuck as he ambled up to the bar. "How's that little laptop of yours doing?" He knew that Mahoney had a 486 -based Toshiba with 4 megabytes of RAM--not bad for a laptop. "Care to see an upgrade for Windows? Got a hot one at the store."

"No," said Father Mahoney, who did not particularly care for the son of the wealthy rancher.

"Well, what about you Grisson? Oh, I forgot. You don't really have a computer, do you?"

Now any alert bartender should have seen this coming. But perhaps Maggie had been surfing the Internet too late the night before; she had that puffy-eyed look of one who has been staring at a terminal too long. Whatever the case, by the time she saw it coming it was too late.

"Just what do you mean by that?" asked Bart. "Performa outperforms Gateway by two to one in floating point operations. TWO TO ONE!"

"No it doesn't," said The Tuck rising from his stool.

"Does so, Blue face," shouted Bart.

"Bull," shouted The Tuck. "All you Reds are full of Bull."

"Wanna get your cache flushed?" taunted Bart.

Well, what can I say? This ended in the usual way--the Sheriff, arrests, and an ambulance. The most demoralizing aspect, pointed out my aunt later over tea, was that even Mahoney was out there swinging with the rest of them.

"What's the point of clicking on the Cross if you behave like that?" asked my aunt acidly.

WELL, BY THE END of my visit to my aunt, I was thoroughly disillusioned with human nature. I know your coast line is rugged and beautiful, but I could barely see it among all the human ugliness that came out over the town computer. I like computers myself. I even have one and use it in my work. Maybe that is the key. I use it; it doesn't use me. Anyway, I want to pose a question to your community. Is this computer worth it, considering the degradation it has caused you, the dissension it has sown? What purpose does it serve? Just to give meaning to your brawls? You do not need an excuse to brawl, if that is what you really want to do. Animals fight, and do they offer explanations?

Please consider this too: In back of everything are the same old personality types from the beginning of time--the good, bad, mean, kind, greedy, moody and so on. Do you really want to confound this with pointing and clicking? Then punching and the County Sheriff and going to jail? Although no one has been killed yet, I'm sure that's only one or two clicks or careless remarks away.

Well, excuse me for this little criticism. I really do think your coast most lovely. And your stormy weather, what a thrill to see mother nature doing her thing again! Like in the old days, as the old-timers are so fond of saying. I am only asking you to give these questions some thought. And in the mean time, my aunt can come to visit me in the city. It is peaceful there. Except for gang violence and air pollution, it is really quite lovely.



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