Guinea-pigs running after a mouse: In the US, it seems, a million programmers can be wrong. Wendy Grossman explores the limits of computer culture

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The Independent Online
THE UNITED STATES is estimated to have more than a million computer programmers. The country won't even have that many lawyers until the year 2000. Some people tend to blame lawyers for everything from the federal deficit to the drips coming through the bathroom ceiling, but in fact the programmers cause more trouble. The rest of the world probably ought to sue - except it is obvious the US has inflicted the worst of the damage on itself.

Take telephones. In the Seventies, Ma Bell, like a number of companies, used to send out bills with accompanying computer punch cards ('Do not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate'). A friend, now a respectable systems analyst (if there is such a thing), got smart with a keypunch machine and discovered that interesting things happened if he just punched an extra hole or two in the card before sending it back with the cheque. Sometimes he got large credits, which he kept. Sometimes he got large debits - which he successfully protested against.

In those days, computers were large, temperamental things needing filtered, air-conditioned, temperature-controlled environments. It was rumoured that just soaking one of those punch cards in cheap perfume would be enough to make one break down. Now we call them mainframes, and the US is thought of as backward because it has a lot of them, rather than the lightweight, inexpensive PC networks European businesses are installing.

The problem for the US is that companies have tens, if not hundreds, of centuries' worth of programming time invested in the software for those mainframes. But keeping the mainframes is an expensive business - one British network consultant says a new network can be bought every year for just the depreciation on a mainframe. If that is true, the same US companies that were so forward-thinking as to computerise early are now caught in an expensive deadlock.

British computer users often envy Americans the low prices and easy access to new products. Save your envy: American users are the guinea-pigs of the world. I recently bought a small money management program, produced by a leading software company. I had forgotten the cardinal rule: never buy version 1.0 of anything. It crashed during installation, and both the original and the replacement disks refused thereafter to copy any files on to my system. The dealer took it back, willingly. 'That's a real buggy program,' he said. 'We don't recommend it.'

Don't worry: it isn't coming to Britain. Sure, it only cost dollars 50 - dirt cheap for a piece of software that will manage your bank accounts, your stock portfolio, and do your taxes. But it didn't actually work.

Then there's the social life. In 1977, we used to hang out at a coffee house in Ithaca, New York, called the Unmuzzled Ox. We brought guitars and banjos, and sometimes bagpipes and bodhrans, and sang folk songs. One day this person arrived - we called him Gravel Voice - and all he ever did was sit there and talk about computers. Gradually, the singing stopped, until all anyone ever did was sit and talk about computers. Then everyone started subscribing to computer magazines. Then they bought computers, stopped reading the magazines, which had fulfilled the function of travel supplements to the armchair-bound, and began staying home to play with their toys.

Now, you can invite everyone you know to a party. You'll have artists, and musicians, and writers, and real estate agents, and insurance salesmen, and teachers, and a lawyer and accountant or two for balance. And they'll all talk about computers, because that's what they all have in common. Everyone is Gravel Voice.

It has even happened to me: I almost got thrown out of a party in Chiswick last Christmas for talking about computers.

What's astonishing in the US is the ubiquity of the technology. Every shopping mall has a branch of one or another software chain (my favourite is Egghead Software), and even mass-market discount stores carry software. Then there are the superstores. At last count, there were more than 70 of these aircraft hangars, 20,000 sq ft or more, all stuffed with computers, software, tape streamers, mice, modems, floppy disks, processor boards, even books and magazines, tucked away into a corner where they won't disturb those who only read if the words appear on a screen. These are friendly places. The staff probably won't talk to you much - but the other customers will, as in, 'You don't want that mouse; I've got one at home and I hated it. Try that trackball over there.' The whole atmosphere is not unlike that of a science-fiction convention, where there are experts, show-offs, journeymen struggling with their craft, aspirants to the holy ranks, and just plain fans.

There is an openness about it all, however, an equality of opportunity: the message is that anyone can do this.

Of course, even in the US everyone can't do this. There are plenty of ordinary people scattered around the landscape who don't have a computer at home. In Maysville, Kentucky (population 12,000), a typed (or worse, word-processed) report handed in to a teacher is regarded with suspicion: some adult did it for you, right?

But even Maysville has what is now called a 'traditional computer dealer', that is, a small store charging more or less list price, and a Radio Shack store, better known as Tandy in Britain.

It is fashionable to look down on Tandy/Radio Shack, but the fact is this was the company that made home computing a reality and is still one of the biggest forces in the industry. I have a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III, bought second- hand in 1982 and still going strong.

Radio Shack's equipment had a big advantage: it worked. You could take it out of the box, plug it in, stick a disk in it, and it worked. I wasn't interested in computers, only in writing, and I was blissfully happy with it until someone last year insisted I start using a PC - something about being sick of having copy handed in on paper. Now I have a PC and a hard disk and a laser printer and an external disk drive and Windows and mice and a CD-Rom drive and a modem and software packages and system crashes.

Something has got lost in all this, summed up neatly by an industry marketing manager who told of a conference of industry figures that he had attended where an expert said two things: first, something like 70 million PCs have been sold, a huge chunk of them in the US; second, US productivity has not gone up one bit in the past 10 years. He nearly got lynched.

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