Written by David Tebbutt, Mensa 09/89 - scanned

You just can't satisfy some people can you? The editor asks me to write 1000 words, then a reader complains that he has to read 990 of them before he gets to the punchline. What does he want - a conclusion with no supporting discussion? Well, let's try it. Here's this month's punchline: ``You don't have to learn programming to be computer literate.''

I'm sorry that you still had to read 52 words before reaching that sentence. Still, it must be better than reading 990. Impatient readers can now dash off to the next article. I'll carry on, just in case there's anyone left.

I frequently meet highly intelligent people who are dead scared of using a computer. They quite often buy them for their staff to use, but wouldn't be seen dead at the keyboard. I used to think that they were afraid of making fools of themselves. Now I suspect they're simply frightened of the unknown, they're afraid they won't understand. They think it's all going to be too `technical' for them.

Yet these people use calculators and modern telephones without too much trouble. They may even use a fax machine or a photocopier. They probably mastered each of these instruments without too much hassle. Why then, the problem with computers? After asking around a few non-computer users I find that they believe they're going to have to learn all sorts of intricacies before they can start to get results. Some are even convinced that they'll have to learn to write programs.

I suppose the computer industry and all its participants are now reaping the reward of years of deliberate bamboozling of the public. Our secret language of bits, bytes, ROM and RAM which made us seem so jolly clever has alienated us and our machines from the rest of humanity. It's little wonder people are frightened. When asked about computing, many computer people have not considered the position of the questioner. Because computer people understand what goes on under the bonnet, that's what they've tried to describe. Eyes glaze over, confusion sets in, and one more person is convinced that using a computer is difficult.

You could draw an analogy with a car. The motor skills for driving are fairly easily learned. But it's a little harder to become a really good driver. And, to me anyway, motor car maintenance is a black art. The motor skills for using a computer are fairly easy - use the keyboard, read the screen, switch the printer on and so on. To get useful results you probably have to spend a little time familiarising yourself with some ready to run programs, like word processors or spreadsheets. Actually writing these programs and looking after the innards of the computer is the equivalent of maintaining a motor car. You can learn these things, but there's no need to if all you want is useful results.

Children tuned into this fact long before magazines, educationalists, television and their parents did. Five years ago microcomputer mania was at its peak. It got slots on prime time television and schools were working themselves into a frenzy to introduce `computer literacy' into the curriculum.

While this was going on the kids discovered computer games. Parents up and down the country were conned into buying these computers, thinking that they would somehow improve little Johnny's chances in life. The reality was that it probably gave little Johnny fantastically fast reactions which best prepared him for aerial combat. Still, the kids probably had the right idea. They actually used the computer to do things that they couldn't do without it. To them, the machine was more or less invisible. You stuck the tape in the tape reader and when it was loaded, followed the instructions for the game.

Some well-meaning adults decided that this wasn't useful enough so, in the name of `computer literacy', they decided to teach children how to program the machine. Lots of parents latched on to this idea and I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't why so many computers ended up as door stops. Who wants to write simple programs when the professional publishers have poured many man-years of effort into their better computer games?

The nice thing about game playing was that kids still got together and talked. They swapped programs (legal) and copied them (illegal) and chatted about their adventures with other children. But many of those who cottoned on to programming found themselves deeply involved with this utterly obedient machine and started to distance themselves from their peers.

I used to run a thing called ComputerTown UK! where I exposed people to computers for the first time at no charge. It was nice to see people break the ice and begin to lose their fears. My saddest moments though, were when young boys (they were always boys) came in to `talk computers' with me. They were obsessed with the mechanics of computing. They'd got these wonderful machines to do their bidding, something that they could never achieve with their peers. I told many a proud parent that little Johnny would be far better off playing in the street than being huddled, alone, over a hot keyboard. You only have to meet grown up programmers to see how quiet and introverted many of them are. I'll swear that some prefer their computer to people.

But programming is about as relevant to using a computer as car maintenance is to driving a car. You can leave that sort of work to other people. You can kid yourself that your problems are different and that a special program is needed. That doesn't mean that you have to write it yourself. Far better to stick to what you're good at and hire a good programmer to do the work.

If you've been hanging around on the computing sidelines out of fear that you'll have to spend weeks learning technicalities, forget it. It probably takes much longer to learn to drive a car. And a computer, with the applications you need, transports your mind to places it could never reach unaided.

And, to achieve this, you don't have to write a single program.