Amid the clatter of a noisy electric fan, I was trying to read Dr. Wilhelm Nass's stimulating paper, "Effects of Humidity on Personal Computers." But I had to give up: The pages got too soggy.
Forget the disc drives and the Targa boards. The most important personal computing peripheral during the summer is the air conditioner.
Environmental factors -- temperature, lighting, desk space, background noise, the chair -- are all variables one takes for granted until they're even just slightly out of kilter. Then, personal computing becomes a hassle-filled, death-by-a-thousand-cuts endeavor. Shirt clinging to my back, I realized that the subtle forces we take for granted in personal computing could make suitable beach reading.
By "taking for granted," I don't mean that we should pause here to give thanks for the computational bounty we have had bestowed upon us but, instead, we should do the sort of intelligent introspection that yields useful insights. It's the old Will Rogers line: "It ain't what you don't know that hurts you; it's what you know that ain't so that hurts you."
Take me, for example. When I first came across Think Tank, I thought it was a foolish and crippled version of a word processor. I did not intuitively understand or appreciate the kind of flexibility an "outline processor" can give a writer. Because I took the versatility of existing word processors for granted, I ignored what is a most useful intellectual tool. This was probably my most foolish mistake as a computer columnist. The issue wasn't the ability to make accurate predictions. It was a fundamental unwillingness to check and recheck my assumptions about personal computing.
Most PC users -- whether clonesters or MacFans or Lotus Lovers -- are painfully inarticulate when it comes to explaining themselves. They sound like teen-agers in love when they talk about their systems. "I really like it," "It feels right," and "It just works" are the kinds of answers you get when you ask people why they settled on their current hardware and software configuration.
It seems that most people pick what we're comfortable with and ease on in as if a PC system were a pair of faded jeans and comfortable shoes.
On one level, that's great. Who wants to have a wardrobe of hair shirts and pinchy wingtips? On another level, however, that's lazy. We let ourselves become mindless, routinized and self-satisfied. We take things for granted.
What PC users have to do is take a "process inventory" every few months. Take a step back to look and feel how you work with your system.
When I've worked with both power users and novices, I was amazed at how much their needs changed over time and, ironically, how much of what they did was by rote rather than by reason. In their rush to turn computer use into a habit, they had sacrificed the chance to add value to their usage. For example, one user didn't know that she could bypass the thicket of menus to go directly to the desk-top publishing layout function she used most often. She had been using the software for more than four months.
At first blush, this advice may seem obvious. But here's a test: Become self conscious about your computer use. Keep a time log and a function log of how you use your personal computer the next few times you boot up.
I'll bet you'll discover what managers who finally get around to keeping a time log discover: that perception and reality are two different beasts. When I kept a log for a week on my PC use, I found out that I was spending far too much time going back and forth between two different files. So I merged them into a single file.
We take the cliche "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" a little too much to heart. There is something to the notion of looking to make things better. There's no question that being self-aware about personal computing will make you more productive.