Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 04/83 item 01 - scanned

Peter Rodwell has a lot to answer for. Last year he put the BBC on to me and Martin Banks, suggesting that we might be suitable victims for a phone-in programme. Much flattered by the invite yet terrified at the prospect, Martin and I turned up at the crack of dawn on the appointed day. What followed was an interesting experience, for us if not for the listeners. We were bombarded with questions about computers and computing for the next hour and, we felt, managed to field them reasonably well. Listening to the tape of the programme it occurred to me that our smug satisfaction derived primarily from actually managing to reply to each question.

After the show Martin and I were taken back-stage, so to speak, for a bracing cup of BBC tea. There we met the team who took the 'phone calls, tried to assess whether the caller had anything to say, whether they would come across okay and whether the question contributed to the balance of the programme. Considering that well over a hundred calls came through and only fifteen or so actually made their way on to the programme, they must have been working like demons behind the scenes. Before leaving, the young lady in charge very kindly allowed me to borrow the notes of each caller's question and very enlightening they were too. I divided the callers into four groups - people after practical advice and information, those with concerns relating to children, people who were downright afraid of computers, and those not in the previous groups but who had something interesting to say.

Many of the callers concerned about children and computers were quite worried. They saw the advent of computers in schools as a bad thing likely to 'turn the children into robots' was how one lady put it. They really were bothered that the computer would stifle the imagination and remove the need for kids to do mental arithmetic.

It was depressing how many people wanted us to tell them what computer to buy without having the foggiest idea what they wanted them for. About half the so-called 'practical' questions fell into this category. I'd ignore them and pick out a few plums from the rest of the practical questions. 'How does machine code work?' asked one irritatingly bright thirteen year old. Well, what would you have told him? I seem to remember pulling the short straw on that one and, before you could say "megahertz", I was very deep into bits, bytes, binary and Boole. No wonder the next few callers wanted to know when computer people were going to start talking English. Quite a few people wanted to know how microcomputers were being used to help handicapped people. I'm sure the answer must be "quite a lot" but it isn't very well publicised. If you know of anyone working in this field, it is definitely worth putting them in touch with the British Computer Society's Handicapped Group. My favourite from this group was "How do I start a microcomputer hobby?" Er, get a computer perhaps?

The 'frightened' group were concerned about radiation, unemployment and security of data. The 'children becoming zombies' brigade fall into this category too. A surprising number of people have been convinced that computers give off harmful radiation. Is this why they are so reluctant to 'have a go' in computer stores and at exhibitions? Many people also believe that the act of storing information on a micro somehow exposes it to abuse. They asked questions like 'what safeguards are there on data security in the home?'. I wonder what safeguards they have on security of the paperwork lurking in their sideboards. Of this lot, though, my favourite has got to be the person who asked 'Since micros are revising the work ethic, what is the Government doing to revise the ways income is being distributed?'. Phew! I'm glad that didn't find its way on to the show.

The last group was the most positive of the lot. These were the interesting questions and comments. How about this one for starters "How accurate are computers with respect to national affairs? They go wrong often enough elsewhere?" I love it.

Our zombies got another look in here from several reassuring people who called to say that computers expand the mind rather than cause it to atrophy. I'm inclined to agree with them too. A heartfelt plea which I'm sure we all agree with was "why don't all computers have standard interfaces?" Why not indeed, it would make life a lot easier for all of us. Some people had the idea that computers were compulsory. "Why are computers considered necessary in the home?" pleaded one poor soul. Another asked "What can me and my wife do with the kid's computer?". Use it as a door stop perhaps, or as a paper weight if it's a Sinclair.

The last one I'd like to mention is "Can a computer write creative poetry?" This reminded me of a true story Dick Pountain told me a few years ago. It concerned the actor/playwright Heathcote Williams. Apparently this gent was a deeply sceptical fellow and was neither into computing nor the church. It seems he didn't really believe in anything unless he could see it, feel it and kick it. That left God and computer programs on the sidelines, so to speak. Imagine his shock when he turned up at a good friend's house to find him using a personal computer. When he'd finished pouring scorn on the friend's activities this same friend invited Heathcote to have a go himself. "Not unless it can write something creative" said the playwright. And with that the two friends sat down to hack out a sort of random sentence generator. The program accepted words from the operator, shuffled them and spat out a sentence of random length.

When the program was ready Heathcote, still sneering, sat at the machine and entered the first set of words. He typed 'There is no God'. Quick as a flash the computer barked back 'There there God'. Apparently Heathcote was converted on the spot. I forgot to ask whether it was to computing, God or both.