MIND WITHOUT MATTER (column) - Computers making our brains atrophy

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 07/92 - scanned

Have you ever wondered about the long term effect of computers on your well-being? It's difficult to find answers because the machines simply haven't been around for long enough. Still, that hasn't stopped the Swedes from coming up with all sorts of rules and regulations concerning the ergonomic aspects of computing, based on what they've discovered so far. I don't suppose it will be long before these rules are enshrined in European law.

The trouble is that computers don't simply affect the physical aspects of your life. They, unlike almost any other artefact, affect your mind as well. At the most superficial level, a piece of badly written software can drive you insane with frustration. I mean, who in their right mind would expect to find the word count function in the spellchecker. If you look at it from a programmer's point of view, it makes perfect sense. Both spelling and word counting require the program to read the current document from end to end.

Or what about writing a text file to disk under `printing'? Some programs get you to agree to print before asking for a destination (disk or printer). Again, this is perfectly sensible from the programmer's point of view. Each command requires the program to compile a stream of output and send it to some kind of device. Humans just don't think that way. Printing on paper is one job, and writing to disk is another.

We also find ourselves getting frustrated with the technology itself. Have you ever tried setting up a network, attaching a CD-ROM drive, or even getting two computers to talk to each other? Each of these activities sounds fairly simple on paper, but can result in hours of frustration.

These irritations are part of the price we pay to get into computing in the first place. But what about once we're in - when we have a working system and we're familiar with the idiosyncrasies of our programs and their creators? That's when many of us start to depend on our machines. Where we once used to calculate sums in our heads or on the back of fag packets, we now dive into the calculator or the spreadsheet. It's so much easier, especially if our computer is a notebook or a palmtop. Appointments, to-do lists and friends' telephone numbers are poured into the machine with no thought for battery failures. Before we know it, we turn to the computer for everything. Our brains start to forget how to think and remember.

I once wrote a program called BrainStorm. It was designed to help people sub-contract their thoughts to the computer. In they'd go, thought after thought. My users didn't need to remember anything. They didn't even have to think very deeply about things because they could shunt their thoughts around on the screen. They could tack on afterthoughts and develop coherent structures with very little effort. When the program was first launched, magazine reviewers said things like, "It changes the way you think". Until now, I'd always rather smugly thought that this implied ``for the better''. Now I'm not so sure. The program is another mental crutch like the calculator. It can make us lazy, while at the same time improving our productivity. A word processor too allows us to become sloppy in our thinking, knowing we can hone and polish until the cows come home.

A lot of desktop publishing packages are being used to give impact to presentations and documents. The surface appeal is judged to be more important than the content when it comes to getting your messages accepted. In America, some students have now been barred from using desktop publishing packages because their work always scored higher than their less well equipped colleagues. As in most walks of life, a glossy presentation does much to overcome poor content.

We shall soon be seeing systems on the market which enable us to send richly formatted documents over telephone lines. Instead of boring old ASCII text, we'll be seeing 72 point Garamond italic headlines or 3 point Times subscripts. And we won't even need the originating application on our own machines. Watch Adobe Systems and Microsoft for the first waves of this technology. Documents will contain pictures, and we'll even be able to plunge below the surface of the document to hidden information. Before long we'll be exchanging documents which can only exist inside the computer.

So what happens when the computer goes `phut'? We lose a lot of information which we had come to rely on. How many of us have up-to-the-minute backups? And what happens when we try to use our own memories? We've become so used to rummaging around the computer for our to-do lists, appointments and telephone numbers, we've actually forgotten the details. Our lives literally grind to a halt.

And what if someone asks you to calculate something? I have a friend with a university degree in computer science. The other day, he realised he'd forgotten what nine times nine is. And he lays the blame for this squarely at the door of his computer.

If the lights ever go out, and the computers go off, those least able to function will be the computer users. Just as muscles waste with disuse so, I suspect, does the brain. And, in the end, that could prove to be the worst long-term effect of computing.