First there was Big Brother, whose electronic snoops and computerized minions made life miserable in "1984."
Then came HAL, the mellow-voiced computer in "2001" that took over the spaceship, intending to kill all the human occupants.
The "enemies list" of computers seems endless: Star Trek's "Nomad" was a universe-threatening computer-run-amok; the android (computer person) in "Alien" helped kill all but one human crew member.
"Computers have bad press," sums up Dot Selinger, IBM's corporate marketing consultant and an expert on the psychology of technology. "You see signs of it, literally, everywhere.
"For a few dollars you can buy a plaque that reads 'To err is human -- to really foul things up requires a computer,' or 'Data Processing Department -- information made complicated while you wait."
These "modern-day silent protests," Selinger told computer specialists at a recent meeting of Women in Information Processing, "graphically demonstrate that the common man has learned to be suspicious of computers. And with good reason.
"When you call the department store with an error on your bill they say, 'It's the computer's fault.' If an answer doesn't seem right, we blame the computer. It's the American way."
But -- since humans create computers in their own image -- the fault does not usually lie with the machnes, stresses Selinger, who specializes in helping people and computers work together. Although technology takes the rap, she says it's often the human designers who are to blame.
"Computer people tend to design machines for people like themselves, who like solving puzzles and are excited by challenge and change. They may forget that the (computer) user may not like solving puzzles, challenge and change.
"Plus, the data-processing world is known for jargon that makes conversation sound like gibberish to those who don't know MBS from APL or COBOL. To anyone trying to learn a system those terms can be particularly intimidating.
"A secretary once said to me, "I used to type a letter. Now I key, enter, revise and store it. And you're telling me the computer makes my work easier?"
Computer designers' enthusiasm for technology often results in "the creation of elegent solutions to non-problems," concedes Selinger, adding that some functions intended to simplify a process are more complicated than the process itself.
What computer designers can "and must do if we're going to fulfill the 'gee-whiz' predictions about the common use of computers in our lives," she says, "is smooth out of those interfaces between humans and machines."
In "computerspeak," this requires making a machine "user-friendly" -- the buzzword for a computer that is easy and enjoyable to use. (Like Space Invader games and bank-teller machines that greet you by name.)
"But can a machine truly be friendly?" asks Selinger (with apologies to R2D2). "Do we really want backslapping hardware? Perhaps we'd rather have clarity and unobtrusiveness.
"To me, the perfect example of a 'friendly' machine is a silent housemate that would be there in the early morning if you need it, but be out of the way when you don't."
For computers to become commonly used, "They'll have to be as easy for the average person to operate as a copier machine. For a product to work -- and sell -- it must be usable.
"If you want to expand the way technology used by lay people we'll have to stop trading off simplicity for cost or fancy function."
Among Selinger's other suggestions for computer designers:
Know your user . "Too often computer people are condescending about anyone who doesn't get their jollies from bitwacking and writing programs. Instead, try to understand what motivates the person on that job.
"For example, office workers have great pride in the appearance, quality and format of their work. They're not going to appreciate something that produces more, to the detriment of quality."
Minimize stresses . Make sure the computer can be used comfortably and will make work easier, not harder.
Prevent catastrophes . If an accidental button stroke could erase an important project or a morning's work, "It's nice to get a second chance" through a fail-safe signal that would ask, "Are you sure you want to do this?" t
Avoid cryptic names . "If someone's been typing all their life why do they 'key in' now?"
Use simple descriptions . "The mere fact that we call computer-instruction books 'documentation' shows we're in trouble."
Be aware of a user's "hidden agenda." An executive may say he can't use the computer because he's used to dictating, or finds the hum distracting. The real reason may be the machine's ego- or status-shattering potential.
"If he worked all his life thinking the measure of success was a private secretary to take dictation, he's not going to give that up. No matter how 'friendly' the machine is, some people will never use it.
"We may have to live through a generation before the office of the future is now."