Don't Let Them Snow You!

A History of Computer Intimidation

In 1976, I was in the Air Force, doing ground-radar maintenance. The Air Force decided it needed computer programmers more than it needed ground-radar maintainers, and offered to retrain me if I extended my service time. I said, "Sure." I figured the civilian world would probably be able to use more computer programmers, too.

I was flown to Wichita, Kansas for six weeks, where instructors basically said, "This is a computer. This is a COBOL program. Go to work." Then I was sent to Omaha, Nebraska, where I proceeded to make the world safe for democracy by keeping the NCO Club Accounts Receivable Program running from New York to Guam.

In those days, computers were pretty intimidating. If one were dropped on you, it would break more than your foot. My first supervisor took me on a tour and proudly showed me the computer room, a huge warehouse in which the computer equipment occupied a quarter of the space. He showed me the outline of the previous computer, which took up almost all the space, and glowingly said, "This baby here is twice as powerful and takes up only a quarter of the room!"

That was about the last time I stepped into a computer room. Computer Operators owned the computer room, and Mere Programmers were not allowed through the door. We respectfully submitted our stacks of keypunched cards, kowtowed, and walked backward to our offices to wait in silent humility until the product of our labors was returned to us; a thick sheaf of computer printout and our original stack of keypunch cards. We would read the computer printout, find an error, punch up a new keypunch card with one changed character, and repeat cycle.

The Civil Service supervisor in the office regaled us with stories of when he was young, and things were much more primitive. "We used to change a program by opening up the back of the computer and switching the wires around!" I marveled at such days, when programmers were allowed to touch computers.

Technology development raced on. Within a year, we had new-fangled computer terminals in the office on which we could send commands directly to the main computer and receive results in real time. We could operate independently of the operators! Except that most data was still on giant tapes or in stacks of punch cards, still under the operators' control. Even when I left the Air Force and went to work for a civilian company, although programmers could write code and run programs directly from our terminal, we had to wait for operators to load tapes and decks of punch cards. If we wanted to ask questions, deliver data from customers, clarify some complex instruction, we had to go to the door of the computer room and knock. The door was answered by a woman who could stand in for the prison matron in a late-night movie. She solidly blocked the entrance and relayed whatever we had to say.

In the 1980s the "microcomputer" came on the market. I remember how excited my husband and I were when we got our first Commodore, our very own home computer with 64K of memory! We had had Texas Instrument computers before, with 16K, but this was a real computer. By staying up all night I was able to program it to run random numbers for Dungeons and Dragons games!

Not many people could do that. To get one of those babies to perform, you had to learn to read and speak a very abstract language. You also had to handle the machine yourself, pressing teeny little keys, reading teeny little print, loading and uploading teeny little tapes — all without the aid of an Operator.

Not everybody could do this. Those of us who could formed elite groups, gloated over our accomplishments, and wrote songs about computer bugs and little teeny print.

By 1987, "PCs" had almost as much memory power as mainframes. One of my co-workers, a guy who believed that Von Daniken was an archaeologist, was able to operate one. There wasn't a lot of software for the things yet, but there were people working on it. My co-worker predicted the day that all business was done on these desktop computers, replacing the mainframes for most common uses. On this, I believed him.

From 1988 to 1994, I helped small business owners and their staff learn to use computers, and wrote customized software for them. I would tell them, "Don't let the computer intimidate you. It is the only thing on the planet dumb enough to do exactly what I tell it to. Not even my ex-husband would do that!" I firmly believed that computers were now useable by anybody-at-all, and only the mystique that had been created by the Operators and Programmers in the old days was still putting people off. "Don't let them snow you!" I said. "Most programmers want you to believe that this is still extremely complicated and they are the only ones who can do it. But if you can write English, if you can make a logical sequence of sentences in English, you can write a computer program." I didn't persuade many people to try writing their own programs, but I at least talked them into running their own programs without acting as if the computer was going to blow up when they touched it. Providing a Nerf Bat to keep by the PC helped.

In 1993 I began sliding into more and longer depressions. By 1994 I wasn't able to get new programming contracts, and was working mostly as an office temp. Even as an office temp, I was operating computers and software many times more sophisticated than I started out on in 1977 — and it was all taken for granted. Most other people in the office, however, including management, were intimidated by things like complex document layouts and mail merge. My ability to do such things was marketable. Every now and then I would explain that I only learned to do these things by doing them — being willing to read the manual, poke at the machine, and keep trying until I got it right. There was nothing arcane about it.

In 1995 depression became totally incapacitating. After I ended up homeless and was finally diagnosed and treated, my life turned around. Not only was I coming out of depression, I was able to relate to the environment and the people around me with a clarity that I'd never had before, and I threw myself into group projects in the homeless community with a new joy and ability to focus, marvel of marvels. One of the projects I got involved in was the Homeless Women's Network, a group of homeless and professional women working together to increase the use of computers and the Internet by homeless and low-income women. At one of our first meetings at Real Change street newspaper (which would host almost any community project) the group decided that, since I had the most experience with computers, including training users, I should be in charge of training women. To use the Internet.

For the first time in years, I was intimidated. I had never used the Internet. There was a lot of hype about the Net. Every ad for AOL or Prodigy or something else touted to "make it easier to use the Internet" made it sound harder to use the Internet! I had just come out of depression. I had only recently become able to do anything. My self-esteem was still toddling on new and spindly legs. I knew I was going to fail at this, and then I would die.

But my friends were counting on me. So I went down the street to our friendly Internet café, Speakeasy, plunked down $10 out of my disability check for an email account, and got online.

An hour later I was back in the Real Change office shouting, "It's all a snow job! This stuff is easy!" A few days later a group of us went up to the Speakeasy to preview our group website, and another homeless woman — who had never been near a computer before — grabbed the mouse and started trying it and within a few minutes was flying.

Since 1995, I have helped homeless and low-income people learn to use the computer and the Internet — get email accounts, search the Web, even create their own websites. I have also offered help to service providers and other housed allies. For the first few years, it was easier to get homeless people on the Net than it was to get housed people to try it! It appeared to me that everyone felt intimidated by the hype about the Net, but for homeless people the Net was the only communication option they had, so desperation provided enough energy to overcome the fear. They would sit at the keyboard and slog until they figured it out. Housed people had other options, so they could keep thinking of reasons to put off actually sitting down and learning to use the Infernal Machine.

All of this is by way of introduction to the idea that you, too, can learn to do anything on the computer. Desktop publishing, spreadsheets and graphs, writing a website, publishing an e-book: no matter how intimidating it looks, it was developed by human beings from primitive beginnings, and every other human being who acts like an expert now was once a raw beginner probably more clumsy than you feel. The only difference between you and them was that they've gone through the process of learning: making mistakes, correcting them, and moving on.

I like to tell my writing students, "If you are afraid to write a bad poem, you will never write a good one. So go for it!" We occasionally have Bad Writing nights, when we try to write badly. I once attended a party where a professional juggler gave a brief lesson, which started with, "Throw your ball up in the air, and let it drop to the ground. Okay. Now you have done one thing that every professional juggler has done. Let's build on that."

The first time you write a webpage and have a blank screen, or a horrid mess, show up in the browser window, you'll have done something every professional web designer has done.

Let's build on that. J

Write On!

Don't Panic

Desktop publishing, spreadsheets and graphs, writing a website, publishing an e-book: no matter how intimidating it looks, it was developed by human beings from primitive beginnings, and every other human being who acts like an expert now was once a raw beginner probably more clumsy than you feel. The only difference between you and them was that they've gone through the process of learning: making mistakes, correcting them, and moving on.

Copyright Anitra Freeman
I am a freelance writer and homeless activist in Seattle Washington. I teach writing and computer skills, including online workshops in poetry, public speaking, and webpage design. I am a lifelong bookaholic and like all true addicts, I'm a pusher, especially of mystery, fantasy and science fiction. Some issues: homelessness and poverty, antiracism, anti-heterosexism (how's that for a word? combines feminism and gay rights), creative writing, creating your own life instead of buying one off the rack. I love almost all forms of parody: humor is a survival tool. Much to the consternation of my sweetie, I also love sea chanteys.