Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Screen or Scream?” by Ken Dunn

I wrote this some time ago so some of the ‘jargon’ is somewhat out of date, by a mere 20 years! But it’s something of an historical piece that still resonates with me, or even ‘we’ dinosaurs. So…..

1991 – This is a simple story with a simple message. The message is a very straightforward one. I thought I’d get it in now just in case you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about. The message is, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being a dinosaur!’

There’s still a few of us around. Not many these days I must admit, but enough of us to keep asking why we have to adopt methods, systems and equipment which are, to us, highly suspect with a capital ‘S’. I’m referring in this case to that infuriating machine known as ‘the computer’. It must rank as the most frustrating device ever inflicted on mankind, turning normal, rational and placid individuals into mindless, manic, white knuckled, red eyed, gibbering wrecks as they endeavour to understand the incomprehensibility of the manual, the near backwards instructions which often appear on screen and the frequency of gibberish which appears whenever they press a single key or dare to ‘click’ a command. Now that really is a joke word if there ever was, ‘command’, as far as the cold and unsympathetic attitude of the internal and mysterious bowels of that particular electronic mechanism.

Many begin to foam at the mouth, others go completely rigid as their mind locks in a turmoil of indecision while yet others have been known to take an axe to vent their spleen on the bland, smug and static ‘TV’ lookalike in front of them. Not that I’m prejudiced of course. Not really. Just puzzled, maybe noneplussed, certainly confused. Life used to be so much simpler, so much more understandable, so much more acceptable. Cast your mind back, not that long ago, to those comparitively straightforward days when the magic, and encompassing word ‘Technology’ wasn’t the all powerful explanation and presumed saviour of life as we knew it.

For instance, there was a time, up to the and through the late forties and the early fifties, when a pen and paper were used to work out problems. But then calculating machines arrived, huge lumps of mechanical hardware. Hardware. That’s a modern term. Sorry about that. Anyway, all these things were basically mechanical, noisy, clockwork-like beasts with a large handle on the side, rather like an old fruit machine. When pulled down all the works rattled around and printed out the result on a roll of paper, a bit like a half size loo roll, at least the ‘up-market’ ones did. I’m sorry, that’s another moderism. It’s so difficult to get away from them. Other versions displayed an old cash register-like answer, rather like the sets of marks thrust up during ice skating, or dancing events.

Since then things have changed dramatically. The sixties saw the introduction of the electronic calculator, more or less as we know it today. The difference was that then they cost around twenty quid each, a very, very good weeks wages in those days, whereas now they’re comparitively slim, credit card sized animals and almost given away with packets of cornflakes. How things do change.

A lot of other things have gone the same way. Telephones are a good example. Anyone can now have easy access, via the mobile or cell phone, to the whole world with a few dabs on a few buttons. My own feeling about this is rather unprintable but I’ll leave the notion of instant communication with everyone as being a basic mistake, that’s all. It just leads to a flurry of ill-informed judgement, without the time to assess anything properly. Having admitted that, I’m just as sure there are millions of silly sods who would disagree.

The good old fashioned wireless set, or if you prefer, radio, is another good example of ‘simplification’ and miniaturisation, although the ‘gargle blaster’s’ of the 70’s and 80’s tended to reverse that pattern briefly. There is, after all these marvels of the modern age, that other ‘important’ device already referred to, and I suspect it will develop even more quickly than the other examples I’ve given. It already seems to be undergoing yet another metamophosis, the latest of many which it’s already had. That is the computer. It is becoming a standard piece of equipment in many households. Programmes have become more and more sophisticated as have the machines themselves and it probably won’t be too long before they become as small and as easy to carry around as the thing I started talking about earlier, the calculator.

These things, computers that is, have become so easy to use that children, from the tenderest of ages, can produce the most amazing results with so little effort. How do they do that? Everytime I get to use it I end up just looking at the damn thing, perplexed, impassioned, palpitating and extremely pissed off! It doesn’t seem to matter what I do to the keys or with the ‘mouse’ for that matter, it just won’t do anything! Now I know exactly what the Luddites must have felt like.

I am refering to my own ‘PC’, to use the jargon again, a Personal Computer, although I do wonder about the word ‘personal’. That probably has something to do with the foul language which it receives on a daily basis since I bought the bloody thing. It’s been four whole weeks now since it arrived and I’m no nearer to solving the basic problem of getting it to do what I want it to do.

(Remember this is a statement from 1991!)

At the same time these last four weeks have been the most disruptive and infuriating of my whole life. That will be revealed shortly but for now you may well be wondering why I bought it in the first place? Simple. It was blackmail. Blackmail from the rest of the family. An ultimatum was issued two months ago. It was a joint communique signed by my wife, son and daughter. The message was a straightforward one, delivered on the single sheet of paper which I found on my desk one morning. It began quite simply and continued to give a complete and very direct ultimatum.

‘This is the twentieth century.

We are all part of the twentieth century, even you!

An important part of the twentieth century is the organisation of information, access to information, use of information and for your information we need a computer!

Household accounts, homework, names, addresses, telephone numbers would be so easy to store and use with a computer. We don’t even want to play games on it, just use it to help with information.

Unless this happens, and soon, we will withdraw all cooperation seven days from this statement.

The gist of that was, ‘Buy a computer, now!’

The withdrawal of ‘cooperation’ was daunting. Families are wonderful. I always had this vague notion of loving, caring, understanding relationships between all but there was nothing of this here. If I didn’t cough the ‘readies’ and buy a ‘PC’ then I would be retracing Robinson Crusoe’s and Ben Gunn’s steps forever! There was nothing else to do. It was a computer or…

I did attempt a short negotiating process with all of them to discover the real need for one of these things. It was the worst ‘interview’ I’ve had for years. My questions were met by a fusilade of answers. ‘Word processing’, ‘Spreadsheets’ and ‘Databases’ were only a few examples of the technicalities which verbally pinned me to the wall. I was suffering from the naive thought that a humble typewriter could perform all the necessary ‘functions’ they were needing. It had for me. I’d been using an ancient, mechanical Underwood for years before it gave up the ghost in a grinding, key crossing death. I still have it. It’s wrapped up snuggly in the back of a cupboard in my study. I haven’t had the heart to chuck it into the bin. That would never do. It’s been an old friend for a long time.

After that I moved on grudgingly to the heady heights of an electrically powered job and that has kept me going for some time. It still clacks away happily, performing all that I need of it but it now seems to be seen as a somewhat antideluvean object as far as the rest of them are concerned. Can’t imagine why. Either way the ‘interview’ was short and to the point. My choice was a simple one, briefly outlined. ‘PC’, personal computer or ‘NC’, no cooperation. What could I do? I was dispatched ignominiously to find out what the ‘best buy’ might be.

The local newsagents had a mind-blowing selection of computer magazines. I bought three of them in the hope that there might be a solution within their pages to this domestic anarchy. Have you ever read one of these things? I don’t mean reading them as if you actually understand them (!) but looking at them as a complete novice, namely me, to this new mystery of the age. There were literally hundreds of options on offer, special offer, latest offer, ‘state of the art offer’ and many, many more. The choice was, to say the least, confusing.

Without any knowlege at all of any of these systems I felt completely at sea, if not partially drowning. To fathom which one of the enormous range available to us was a complete and total electronic minefield. I had to find some sensible advice from somewhere, but where and from who? Not the easiest of problems to solve. I gave up trying to understand anything I was looking at in the magazines and turned to good ol’ Yellow pages. The fingers did the walking as I phoned several computer retailers but the information I managed to collect was just as confusing. After ‘discussing’ my needs with half a dozen of these places I was none the wiser.

Why do these people always talk in abstruce ‘language’ and assume you understand? Would I be needing a ‘286’ or a ‘386’ or maybe a ‘486’? Would it be a ‘DX’ or an ‘SX’? How much ‘Ram’? A ‘Super VGA’ with a ‘Tower’ or ‘Desk Top’, including ‘Twin Ports and ‘CD Rom’? Which ‘Programmes’ did I want to run? The questions were endless but what did they mean and how the hell was I supposed know what I wanted? All I knew was that it had to be a bloody computer. Simple as that. I had no idea it would be as complicated as this.

Two hours later I was no further forward. I might as well have been talking to a retarded camel herder in the middle of the Sahara, asking if they were good pets and house trained.

The actual decision was made by my twelve year old son. While I was messing about on the phone he flicked through the magazines I’d bought, ringed a few examples shown inside them and dumped them open on my desk. I felt the thud as I was deep in conversation about ‘mega’s’ and ‘gigga’s’, whatever they are. As he walked off with a smug grin on his face I considered a simple response but then murder is a rather anti-social business, especially within a family. Grudgingly, I looked at his choices and nearly fell off my chair at the prices. I’d be lucky to keep the overall cost to under £1,000! The examples he’d ringed were complete packages, bristling with speakers, CD Roms, Mouse, a number of mysterious extras, ‘essential’ bits and pieces and a printer. I then became even more depressed as I realised how much I would have to learn.

I’ll cut through the agony of purchase, delivery. The setting up alone took nearly half a day. Fortunately the kids were at school. If they’d been around they would have been climbing all over the damn thing, wanting to be the first to use it. As the technician left the house I just sat there, looking at this collection of electronic beasts. They had taken over my desk completely. My typewriter had been pushed to one side and was probably sulking. Then I swung my eyes over to the thick, heavy tome lying next to the keyboard. The manual. Familiarity with this had all the makings of a recurring nightmare. This was going to take some time.

Have you ever read one of the manuals which arrive with these things? DON’T! As pure, unadulterated double Dutch they come out tops every time. I cannot understand how machines like these need to have an enormous doorstop of a book to explain how they work while being written in pure and totally incomprehensable gobbledegook at the same time! All too soon the kids came piling in from school and that was it. I didn’t get near the thing for two weeks. I decided to organise a strict rota so that we’d all have an even chance of using it. It’s a small point but I’m not really upset that my study had been completely taken over by the rest of the family, all fighting to use the computer. I won’t push the point that I bought it with my hard earned money. No, that would be very petty. A simple rota system might stop the fighting over it and calm both my wife and myself. Well, it was at least a theoretical possibility.

It still wrankles that I paid out £958.76p for a sophisticated, state of the art, electronic, personal computer and all the bits which so far has astounded all of us with its efficiency, instananeous processing of information and its extraordinary memory. In fact, and in between fighting over it, the kids have done nothing more than play patience and chess on it as well as a few dubious and mindless games. Sod all homework has been produced either. The printer has churned out incomprehensible rubbish and the biggest challenge in the vast memory which lurks within the incredible circuitry of that bloody great box has been to cope with that huge problem of the weekly shopping list. Truly amazing.

(This was well before the ‘net’ established itself.)

A rota was eventually and reluctantly accepted by all and after the first few days trial seemed to be working quite well. The kids were still messing about with games on the damn thing and my wife had loaded up a months worth of shopping lists. As for me, well, I’d managed to get beyond switching it on and bringing up a word processing programme but very little esle. The very term ‘word processing’ still smacks of ‘food processing’ and similarly contrived descriptions but these are the terms which are used so one has to ‘go with the flow’. Not that I was ‘flowing’ at all. Far from it. I was still the main star at producing the highest rate of indecipherable rubbish both ‘on screen’ and via the printer, much to the amusement of the rest of them. I think I hold the record for producing a document of 5,000 pages of pure gibberish!

But as luck, and life, would have it another major problem arrived just over a week after the beast was installed which didn’t help my state of mind at all, not one little bit. Road works out in the street had been going on for a few days and somehow the happy band of workers out there succeeded in chopping through a main electrical power supply cutting off almost half of the town including us. By the time it came back on it was dark and the whole house was in emergency mode with candles all over the place. With the lights back on we had to spend a good half hour scraping up candle grease from everywhere. Then the lights dipped, blinked but then steadied again. The kids had disappeared into my study and switched the PC back on. The lights flickered again all over the house and we made for the candles again just in case. After a few more minutes we relaxed. The lights remained steady but a call from the study made my heart sink to my boots. The kids were yelling down to us that the PC wasn’t working. Something happened which had left our brand new £958.76p marvel as dead as a Dodo. It may have been a power surge or whatever but the thing refused to come back to life.

The people we bought it from came to look at it the following day, exposing its innermost workings but couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Power was coming up through its entrails but still nothing was working. They had to take it away, twiddled about with it, strictly under the guarantee, and back it came two days later, a much happier PC altogether. It didn’t last.

By this time I had conceded that the competition for the machine wouldn’t go away. It would always be surrounded by my finger flexing off-spring most of the time, and I was getting fed up not being able to use my study. I took the whole lot downstairs and set it up in one corner of the lounge. I would at least be able to use it after the kids had gone to bed instead of having them creep out of their bedrooms and along to my study at all hours of the night to mess about with it.

But things didn’t improve much. In fact they continued in the same infuriating way. Only three days after the thing had come back from its first hiccup my son fed it a ‘floppy disc’ which he’d borrowed from one of his mates. There was nothing ‘floppy’ about this thing. It was square and not disc shaped at all! Anyway, that had something called a ‘virus’ on it and successfully corrupted, good word that, ‘corrupted’, the ‘hard disc’ inside the thing. Another day or so later, and after another repair, this time not covered by the gaurantee and almost £300 to pay for the priveledge of having it repaired, it came back again. The hard disc had been replaced and we were back in business again. So was the instant warfare between the kids to use it. Even my wife wasn’t able to load the vital shopping list onto it.

I tried to re-instate the rota system but that didn’t last more than another two days. It’s now a case of who can get there first. Once there, and in position, it’s a case of never leaving the room. I tried that once to serve the call of nature and when I came back the kids had taken over again. The work I’d had on screen had gone, ‘unsaved’, replaced with some banal game they were playing and the disk I’d been using was lying on the floor. Later, when I ‘reoccupied’ the territory, the file I had on the disk had been completely screwed up and replaced by unintelligible nonsense. And why are they called ‘disks’ when the damned things are square?

Anyway sliding it back into the machine I started again. Big mistake. For some reason the thing took umbrage and froze. No key would perform any kind of function except to ‘beep’ at me every time I depressed one in the vague hope of ‘un freezing’ it. So there it now sat and so did I. Why did I ever buy the damn thing? I left the room, walked upstairs to my study and pulled open the cupbopard door. My old Underwood typewriter was still there, wrapped up just as I’d left it. Smiling to myself I closed the door gently, leaving there to dream its clackity dreams. Over at my chair I sat down in front of my trusty electric one. Switching it on I fed in a single sheet of paper and brought that up, ready for typing. Sitting back I savoured the moment slowly and then began to type….

‘1991. This is a simple story with a simple message. The message is a very straightforward one. There’s nothing wrong with being a dinosaur….’

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