Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”
That comes from “An Incomplete Stranger,” a short story I wrote and published a few years ago. It reflects my long-standing opinion about computers—when they work, they are useful tools, but much of the time they are inconvenient, annoying, and exasperating.
When I arrive at work and log into my computer, it takes ten to fifteen minutes before I can check my email, log into my timesheet, and get started at my job. Several other programs have to “do their thing” before my computer is usable or useful. Java must tell me that an update is available, and the anti-virus software has to report, and Microsoft Teams has to log in, and several other programs have their tasks or reports to accomplish. I’ve taken to leaving tasks that don’t require the computer in place at the end of the day so I can start my computer and then be productive while it tries to wake up and get ready for the day.
Meanwhile, my home computer is logging off the Internet connection at random times, requiring me to restart the computer to reestablish the connection. I have no idea why it logs off when it does; I just have to adjust my behavior accordingly.
Microsoft Word is trying to make me a better writer. It consistently suggests “must” in the place of “have to,” “can” in the place of “is able to,” and “whether” instead of “whether or not.” Sometimes I agree with the suggestions; sometimes I like the rhythm of my longer phrases better than Word’s terse Heminwayesque style. The other day it helped me to spell “dysfunctional” correctly; it seemed to me that the word ought to begin with “dis-,“ and the correct spelling seems… well, it just does not seem to work.
Science fiction has for years conveyed warnings about allowing the machines to take over the world. Captain Kirk and Doctor Who regularly encountered societies where humans had become the slaves and computers were doing all the thinking. Kirk had a particular knack for talking a computer to death. Artificial intelligence may compete successfully with human intelligence in some areas—chess, for example—but it remains far less creative and flexible than the human mind.
People and their machines will always have a partnership in the world. In theory, machines could replace and exterminate humanity. In reality, it will never happen. They continue to be our tools, and we continue to have the last word. J.
That’s what he thinks. J’s computer