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Fighting the good fight against the techno-cafeteria

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Fighting the good fight against the techno-cafeteria

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1987, The Syracuse Newspapers

The cafeteria at the paragraph factory where I work has gone hi-tech. All the old machines that dispensed coffee and candy and stale sandwiches have been replaced by new machines that dispense coffee and candy and stale sandwiches.

The new machines are shiny and have a square look. The old machines looked dull and rounded. And there's one other difference: The new machines are digital.

Yes, the revolution has come to cafeterias. Like compact disc players and cheap watches and FM dials and a thousand other artifacts of late-20th century civilization, the machines that keep us from going thirsty and hungry have become awash in a sea of numbers. Analog methods—the system of representing time with hands that point, or music with grooves that wiggle—have been turned aside on the machines that give us little pieces of pie.

These days, you no longer push a button that says "pie'' or pull a lever next to a picture of a cherry turnover. You punch in a code.

Want a cup of coffee? Look at the list on the coffee dispenser. Pick a number.

Try 16; that's black. Or 17; that's black with sugar. Or was that 18? Extra strong coffee? Push the little magic symbol, a spidery thing with filaments streaming out, the one that might be an asterisk.

Extra sugar? Try the pound symbol. But only if you press 18 first. Or was that 19?

And whatever happened to 20? Why isn't 20 on the list? What happens if you press 20?

To use the old machines, you didn't even have to be able to read, much less add and subtract. Buttons with pictures on them and levers next to miniature labels can be understood even by grownups over 40, like me.

As it turned out, the introduction of the digital snack dispensers coincided with the installation of another hi-tech product in the office, a Macintosh computer. The Mac, of course, uses digital technology in its internal circuits, but compared to the food vendors down the hall, the Macintosh is absurdly old fashioned.

Instead of numbers on its screen, the Mac shows pictures. If you want the Macintosh to do something, you don't press a number; you push a little arrow around on the screen until it's pointing at a picture that shows what you want it to do. Then you push a button on the little object that moves the arrow.

Want to load a computer file into the Mac? Point to a file cabinet.


Want to throw something away? Point to a waste basket.


No one has made much of a point of it, but the Macintosh is really an analog computer in the way that it works with people. An analog is nothing more than a likeness, just as in the word "analogy.'' The analog nature of the Macintosh extends to its drawing tools—you use a pen and a tablet, just like you would in 8th grade art class—and to its general programming, as well.

The point that was being made by the designers at Apple Computer (and by their predecessors at Xerox, where the Macintosh has its roots) is a simple one. They were making a computer that could be easily used by someone who knew nothing about computers.

They made a machine that anyone could feel comfortable with right from the start. In short, they made it user friendly.

If you're not a fan of computers, this may not mean much, and, to be honest, it probably doesn't mean a lot to many computer users, either. A computer is a computer, they say. Type in some numbers and let it go to work. Pictures are for kids and walls.

Maybe they're right. I'm neutral in this matter, owning three computers that work the non-Macintosh way. I like the way they zip through numbers and respond to mysterious commands such as "DIR'' and "CHKDSK.''

But when it comes to coffee machines, I'm not sitting on the sidelines. I'm going out to the battlefield and fight off the revolutionaries, wherever they appear.

And the next time I slip in a quarter and a nickel for my morning cup of cheer, if no one's looking, I'm going to strike a blow for decency.

I'm going to press 20!

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