Further reflections on the age of the personal computer:

When I first turned on my personal computer a year-and-a-half ago, it was with the conviction that the 21st century was but a keyboard command away.

Well, I was right--as far as it went. What's thrown me is the discovery that the future doesn't quite look the way I originally thought it would.

You see, I suffered from the common misperception that a computer was the answer: it would balance my checkbook. It would do my taxes. It would transform my kids into computer whizzes.

I was wrong. A computer's not the answer. It's really more like a nagging question.

Sound weird? Not when you realize that the computer performs none of the tasks I just mentioned. You do.

After all, you decide what you want the computer to do. Then you're the one who has to scrounge around for the information the computer needs to do the job. And, if that isn't maddening enough, you'll be the one who has to type it all in before anything is accomplished--and be sure you get it right, because the computer-age saying "garbage in, garbage out" wasn't coined for nothing.

And what is the computer doing while you're sweating away? It's just sitting there.

Maybe the most important thing any neophyte like me should know about a computer is this:

A computer is a nothing more than a tool. Just like a hammer. And if you're too tired or too bored or lack the umph to use it, well, it sure ain't gonna to do your work for you.

Does that mean a computer isn't all it's cracked up to be? Not necessarily. Consider the hammer.

On the one hand, if you don't have any need to pound nails, then chances are you don't need a hammer. The same thing holds for a computer. If you don't have a task it can help you accomplish, the odds grow that it may not be worth buying (keep in mind, however, that some computers now sell for as little as $50, making it less painful to discover you made a mistake).

On the other hand, just having a hammer around can be inspiring. You might pick it up one day and discover you like building. Ditto with a computer. Its potential--the question--is always there.

To me, it is in the "inspiration" category that a personal computer holds so much promise. Maybe not for every individual who buys one. But certainly for us as a nation.

First of all, there are the kids. With home computers selling by the millions--and mind you, no where else in the world are they selling in such vast quantities--we are insuring that our children are getting a head start on developing skills that will serve us well in the years to come. To wit: all those news stories about kids barely into junior high who are breaking new ground in programming.

That's one stirring plus. The other is what the personal computer age is going to do to American small businesses.

It's going to revitalize them, and, in the process, provide a firm foundation for future small business growth. Thanks to their diminishing cost, their growing ease of use and the plethora of business programs, personal computers will enable small businessmen to streamline their operations. That means their businesses are going to be more efficient. And that is good news for you and me, because that will mean more bang for our buck in the consumer marketplace.

I have my reservations about just how much of an impact the personal computer will ever have in the home. But as an investment in our future, I have no doubts.

I have seen the 21st Century. It ain't bad at all.