Computers get a poor press

Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 03/83 item 02 - scanned

Monday, 28 February, was the day that the media was let loose on the British Leyland Maestro. And what did they focus their collective attentions on? The talking computer.

Other things were mentioned but the main thrust of the news programmes were about British breakthroughs and talking micro-circuitry. The daily papers were full of 'the first family talking car' and extremely proud of British high technology.

One paper actually published a photograph of the 'British' high technology at the heart of the Maestro - a Hitachi component clearly stamped 'Japan'.

It really is quite astonishing how much the popular press can mess things up whenever they try to write about matters computational. For some reason, they just cannot resist the urge to sensationalise or trivialise any piece of computer reporting that comes their way.

I've been taking a particular daily paper for years now and without fail it has managed to cock up the most straightforward computer story. In common with its competitors it has also contrived to feed its readers a regular diet of computers 'going beserk' and issuing old ladies crazy gas bills or people extracting their revenge on computers by shooting them.

But during the last year or two, it has introduced a new kind of computer story the kind that its readers presumably are intended to take seriously.

Hardy perennials like Nick Smith (Sterling Mouse) and Julian Allason (ex-Petsoft and Microcomputer Printout) are periodically trotted out in 'lifestyle' type articles. I know for sure that the articles are exaggerated for effect, partly because I know the people involved but also because, on the most recent occasion, the same newspaper telephoned me to see if they could interview my wife. The conversation was full of leading questions like 'what does she really dislike about your involvement with computers'.

They were obviously extremely disappointed to find that, like most computer people's wives, mine accepts that computing is something which provides food, comfort and shelter for the family and it if wasn't that it would be something else. 'Yes, but what really upsets her about having computers around the house?'.

And so the questions went on, probing for some trivial aspect of our lives that could be magnified into a sensational and misleading article. In the end they gave up and I said 'why don't you call my wife and see what she's got to say. Maybe you owe it to your readers to tell it like it really is.'

No, that wasn't what they wanted, they were really after someone whose marriage was on the verge of collapse because of computers. Not feeling able to judge the state of other people's marriages I left them to find their own story.

Eventually, they found Nick Smith who, ever since Guy Kewney wrote about him as being 'demented', has had a healthy disregard for the veracity of the printed word. Nick knew exactly what the newspaper was up to. It had pretty well written the story and was just looking for some couple who would allow their name to be used. Nick and his wife agreed to be the victims.

Subsequently, Nick received a lot of good-natured ribbing from the people at work. However, his wife, Shirley, received a number of calls from friends who were so sorry to hear that the marriage wasn't working out too well. Clearly, a lot of people take the printed word very seriously.

A few weeks later, I had a sensible telephone conversation with one of the editors of this same publication who appeared to be asking a number of reasonable questions about the microcomputer business. He said he was developing a new series on computing for the paper. I expressed my relief that someone was doing something and told him to call again if he needed more help.

Shortly after this, the 'financial advertisement manager' wrote to me to invite my company to advertise its wares in a special microcomputer feature. Following the editor's 'phone call and reading words in the letter like (... readership bias towards financially aware people, professional advisors, small businessmen... 'and so on, I succumbed and placed a very expensive advertisement in what I thought would be a new wave of carefully thought out, objective features designed to help people understand what microcomputers are all about. I should have known better.

The article was entitled 'This new computer game'. Fair enough I suppose, headlines do have to be eye-catching. And there on the right was Caxton's ad, very tasteful. Unfortunately, there was a very large cartoon with the onomatopoeic words splodged across it so the page read 'Burp, Wheeeeee, Ratatatatat, Wheeeee, Burp, Caxton'. Just what we needed.

The articles were all right, albeit fairly brief. In fact, six articles were crammed into an area two thirds the size of the page you're reading now. About two hundred and fifty words were aimed at the 'financially aware, etc... ' people, the rest were devoted to space invaders, games and a glossary of sixteen computer terms. It was a disappointing effort to say the least, especially since it bore little relationship to the material the advertising people were selling copy against.

Of course all papers exaggerate for effect and concentrate on trying to give their readers an interesting read. I suppose I'm guilty of the same sins in this very article. I have singled out the aspects of the press which get up my nose but I can say, hand on heart, that I'm in no way trying to mislead you.

Given that the sub-editor does a reasonable job, and he always does, you should be reading something akin to the words I see before me now (can I have my arm back... Ed). Somehow, I think Fleet Street manages to filter out whatever sense is in the original articles and it's a real shame. Unless the public at large gets a more balanced picture they will never come to terms with this brave new world we're creating around them.

By the way. The thing I like best about the Maestro's talking chip is that it can be switched off.