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Afraid of computers? Help is at hand

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Afraid of computers? Help is at hand 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

A reader in Minnesota asks how to figure out the basics. A reader in Connecticut wants to know about brand names. A reader in Louisiana is worried about costs.

A few years ago, all these questions probably would be about VCRs. But these days video cassette recorders have become common enough to qualify as home appliances. Everybody knows how to use a toaster, and we all seem to know how to hook up a VCR—or how to ask a neighbor to do it for us.

But these three questions and dozens of others that have come in lately are about another electronic device, one that is still too mysterious to be called an appliance. They are about the home computer.

As a writer who counts part of his income in the bits and bytes of three well-used PCs, I am reminded nearly every day that readers are often confused by their computers and are sometimes even afraid of them.

Since I have yet to find anyone who is afraid of a toaster or a VCR, I'm convinced that PCs engender this reaction, not because they are hard to figure out, but because they are powerful. Computers can do practically anything, and on a mythical level this is perceived as a threat.

I see signs of this in the mail I get from readers and in the phone calls from computer users.

The last time I sent out free programs on hundreds of discs, I got dozens of calls from PC users who wanted to know what files were on the discs they received. They had not even placed the discs in their computers and looked at the directories (the list of files that shows up on the screen).

If we get a letter in the mail and don't see a return address on the envelope, we find out what's inside by opening it. Computers and the floppy discs they use should be the same way.

What's needed, then, is a nationwide effort to demystify computers. Kids don't need it, since they learn how to use computers in school. But we all know that adults need it bad.

Let's start right here and now. Save this article, copy it, pass it around; give it to the people who run adult education programs in your community. Tell them to reach me at the address at the end of this article if they want to share ideas.

Here are a couple of suggestions for anybody who's afraid of computers.

First, go to a store that sells personal computers and ask someone to let you try one out. Don't stand there and watch; do it yourself. That's very important.

Any computer will do, but the ones that are the easiest to cozy up to are the Macintosh (sold by Apple dealers), the ST (Atari dealers) and the Amiga (Commodore dealers). Sit down at any of them and start messing with the mouse. You'll find that they're fun to play around with—and that means they're pleasant to use every day.

Second, pick up a copy of Compute! magazine. (Yes, the punctuation is part of the name.) It's probably the best publication for beginners, and has been around for about as long as PCs have.

Third, go to the public library and check out a few books on PCs. If you were good in foreign languages in school, take home a book on the BASIC computer language and see if it makes sense to you after a few hours of reading. Most of the computer users I've talked to who've spent any time with BASIC have said it was a fascinating experience, and one that was more fun than work.

Fourth, if you own a computer, do something with it. Don't let it sit there. You can write a program in BASIC in two or three minutes that will make your PC do neat tricks.

The neatest trick, of course, is to end up liking and enjoying a computer. Otherwise, it's just a waste of space and money.

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