A column NOT about Florida

Posted: Dec 05, 2000 12:00 AM
If you were awaiting -- better yet, biting your fingernails in expectation of -- another column on the election, forget it. We pundits are pundited-out. "There's More to Life Than Politics,'' to quote the title of a recent masterwork by a journalist-author whose name I must modestly decline to impart here (but you can call me for it). The business at hand is not the bestseller list but rather the observance of an anniversary -- my own, he said modestly. My first anniversary as the operator of a personal computer. My home-base newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, has us all on PCs now. At least I think so. I could be wrong. I have been wrong about much else connected with the cybernetic age. My own plunge came just a year ago. It was some bath. I still require regular mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A few observations about the experience: 1. It's not as bad as one old enough to have seen first-run "Roy Rogers" movies at the ideal theater might have supposed. If you can type, you can operate a PC. In fact, it's a little like cooking: Just read the directions. I downloaded, or something or the other, Adobe something-or-other, just by reading the instructions; and I'm still able to use the thing. It's only fair to say that having the News' technology help desk at your beck and call helps a lot. At-home users lack the prerogative of instant rescue in time of catacylsmic failure. At the beginning, I had Chris Wienandt in my office so many times I contemplated letting him sleep, maybe cook, here. 2. But once you kind of get the hang of it, writing becomes easier than ever -- in the way, almost 40 years ago, I discovered banging out college themes on the typewriter was easier than writing them in longhand. While typing, you can keep up -- almost -- with your thoughts. A computer lets you try out things, see how they look, move forward, then return -- all at no cost whatsoever. 3. Mastery of cult knowledge and language is no big deal in the computer game. I've no more idea how many megabytes of RAM -- whatever RAM is -- live in my machine than I know how many votes Al Gore really got in the Miami-Dade County. The only important thing is, this thing works most of the time. And when it doesn't, there's Chris or someone else. 4. The Internet is a remarkably mixed blessing. Lord, the stuff you can find! Lord, the stuff that finds you if you aren't nimble! I've done genuinely useful research on the Internet. And yet I maintain that the Internet is the greatest time-wasting device ever contrived by man. It reminds me of Carlsbad Caverns: One passage leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to ... exhaustion and a panicked scramble to get back where you started. But on the Internet, you get stuff you wouldn't get anywhere else -- like those mock-Florida ballots that were everywhere a few weeks ago: e.g., "Voting for Dummies ... Specifically Designed for Residents of West Palm Beach County, Florida.'' (It's also great for looking up addresses and phone numbers.) 5. E-mail is another mixed blessing, allowing you to reach people anywhere and whenever, but also allowing them, as is only polite, to reach you whenever. I sometimes return to the office after a few days away to find 70 or 80 new communications staring at me. Being the unfailingly curious sort, I have to look at nearly all of them. 6. The computer will never replace the book. Oh, I know what they say -- as I know how the feeble mockery of "get a horse!'' came no longer to be heard in the streets. Still, while there may be some future for so-called "e-books,'' I bet it's not much of a future. It's hard enough reading e-mail while bent over a keyboard. But books! Nobody's going to read a real book that way -- or much of anything else that must be read in a connected fashion. What I want to read with any attention I print out, and that's not truly wonderful either, because you get page after page of loose stuff that gets mixed up with your bills and unread magazines. That's enough for now. Except for a philosophical point: You win some, you lose some. Hardly any wonderful New-Step-Forward turns out to be as wonderful as its promoters promised -- or as fatal as its opponents admonished. Would I for one go back to the Underwood typewriter with which I started journalism -- and to the eraser, the crumpled copy paper, the patched and pasted story, with lead-pencil tracks marching down the margins? Not a chance. Right, Chris?