The theme of the computer conference opening at the Washington Convention Center today is "Taming Technology," which is most appropriate given the way computers are running wild in our homes and offices.
Although they look nice and harmless in the store, beaming with bright colors that say, "Hi, I'm user friendly," once you buy one: Watch out!
Word on the computer circuit has it that a recalcitrant contraption can chew up your work like an untrained dog and, if irritated, can cause sterility and blindness.
Because I am not sure about some of this, I think I'll attend the conference, which continues through Thursday. But after six years of finger fights with the state-of-the-art-now-out-of-date model that sits on my desk, I am prepared to offer a few helpful hints.
First, never -- ever -- sit in front of your computer with your arms folded and wait for it to do magic, like the salesman said it would. I have learned that a computer is like a hoe, just another tool that can cause arthritis to act up.
The salesman will say, "Welcome to the world of Basic," then wait for you to fork over the bucks before explaining that he means the world of basic ignorance.
Now, press the keyboard -- if you dare -- and wonder what that "star" on the screen means. The salesman will gladly tell you it means that everything you had typed before the star is now in the twilight zone.
Second, forget about that "how-to" manual -- which makes no mention of the star. Remember, it was printed with the help of a computer, which has no interest in you or whether you learn to use it.
Consider, then, a tutor.
"This is a computer," they tell you. "The DOS operating system determines the format and edlin."
And everybody in the class says, "Yeah" and "uh huh," because nobody wants to be a dummy, even though everybody has a star on the screen.
When the tutor says that each computer has "30,000 free bytes," all fingers rise from the keyboard. A byte, the tutor laughs, is a character, or space.
"Yeah. Uh huh," say the class members, looking stupid as they return to their positions.
"Having problems?" Let the brave soul raise his hand. And listen carefully as the tutor explains Computer Axiom Number One: GiGo.
"If you put garbage in, you get garbage out."
"Yeah. Uh huh."
Third, if you don't have a computer, seriously consider whether you really need one. All this talk about staying in touch with the future is baloney. Computers are for programmers. What you may need is just a good typewriter.
Consider the case of a business manager who has two computers in his office. Most of what he does involves writing letters and memos, and when it comes to processing his words -- erasing mistakes and jiggling paragraphs -- the computer does that beautifully. But then he has to give the printouts to his secretary who types them on letterhead stationery with an IBM Selectric -- and whitewashes mistakes.
And think what would happen if the secretary had a computer. They say computers save time. But for what? More work.
Obviously, there is an up side to owning computers. The main one is that your friends will think you are smarter. They may assume that you are plugged into the stock market, an international data retrieval system or the Pentagon.
While it's okay to play along with them, the computer must be taken seriously. Only you know that what you really have is direct access to an ulcer.
Personally, I'm for using a whip and chair to tame technology. But experts on computer obedience say to be patient: The computer you bought yesterday is probably "pregnant," and due to give birth to a new generation of computer next year, after which it will keel over and die right on your custom-made computer table.
Of course, the new "baby" will cost double the price, need twice the training and probably require a muzzle -- lest you get more bytes than you bargained for.