A bunch of newspaper editors were sitting around the other day talking about the new home computers. One of them said that there was a new Apple on the market and another said that IBM had a good model and a third mentioned something about the Commodore. This prompted one of them to say, "I want the new Apple." Not me, I said. I want the old Lionel.
Ah, trains, one of them sighed. Yes, a Lionel, one of them said. Electric trains, said another, as everyone drifted off into a nostalgic trance. And then I added that I wanted a complete set, one with bridges and tunnels and a cattle car from which little cows come out.
I want a locomotive that emits steam and a caboose with little men on the back and railroad crossings where the gate comes down automatically when the train passes. I want snow on my little mountains and little rocks in my desert and cars that couple and uncouple without going off the tracks. I want to hear the sound of miniature whistles and the clackety-clack of a train as it passes over a plywood landscape. I want, in short, the train set my friend Sam had as a kid--the one my parents could not afford, not that Sam's could either.
It is possible that there is a man somewhere who no longer yearns for the trains he did not have as a boy--the one that some kid down the block had--but I have not met him. So they buy home computers. This is my theory, and it is substantiated by nothing less than a hunch and the certain knowledge that there is almost nothing a home computer can do that a train set cannot.
In fact, despite many inquiries to those who own them, I cannot for the life of me figure out what a home computer does. I am told that it can balance your checkbook--but only if you enter the checks written and the deposits made. I could do that in my checkbook. Trouble is, I do not. A computer with my work habits would rust within a year.
I am told also it can keep a budget. You tell the computer what your income is and what your expenses are and it will tell you how much money you have. If you do the same thing yourself with a pad and pencil, you can keep your own budget and you don't have to plug yourself into the television set. A computer can also store recipes. I am awed by this technological advance, appreciating how this is a lot better--not to mention more expensive--than a 59-cent plastic box. As for the other things a computer can do--shopping, making bank deposits--they are all for the future--and frightening as hell.
No, a home computer is nothing more than a train set for grownups. It is no accident that this computer mania is largely confined to men. They are the ones, I am sure, who either did or did not have electric trains as a kid (columnists get to have it both ways) or were given that totally unacceptable substitute, wind-up trains. (Talk about kissing your sister!) Either way and anyway, all they want is another toy--something to play with, a prop for the imagination.
The home computer, like electric trains of an earlier era, is a way of escaping--from people and from fears and anxieties. The power that came with controlling a train set, with making the cows moo and the engine whistle, has been updated to the home computer. Now you can make numbers appear and program programs, but the name of the game is still control. You create your own world and you control it. That, as Voltaire said in another context, is the best of all possible worlds.
But if it's all the same to you, I would rather control a train set. I would rather see the train chug up a mountain than pretend I'm balancing my checkbook. I would prefer to figure out why the cars are not coupling than figure out why my budget is not balanced. I would rather recreate a world of small farms and little farmers waving at a passing train, than a world where the supermarket potentially has instant access to my (hopelessly unbalanced) checking account.
So keep your Apples and your Commodores and your IBMs and whatever else might be on the market. When it comes to playing with toys, I'd rather play in the past than the future. Give me a Lionel.