Back in college, science courses were divided into lectures and labs. That was instructive in more ways than one. You learned, if you did not already know it, that what looked good in theory often failed dismally in the lab. This, by another name, is called life.
Now I have learned that lesson once again. Several years ago, I thought it fit to offer some wisdom on computers. There was a story in TimeWeek, probably a cover, saying that more and more people were working at home on computers. I decried this, ruing the end of the office community, the shmooze by the water cooler, the interchange with colleagues that produces, if not inspiration, then so much good gossip. Crowded cities, after all, produce civilization. Lonely farms produce hogs.
Now, though, I have gone from the lecture to the lab. I have bought a computer -- an IBM-PC with all the requisite doodads. It does things beyond imagination (at least that's what I'm told), although all I want to do is write. I already use a computer at the office, carry a portable with me when I travel and wanted one at home to write a book -- and an occasional column.
At first, I had lots of trouble. I am not what's called handy. In fact, I am the same guy who as an Army combat engineer built a model of a floating bridge upside down. All I knew was that the parts fit together and all the sergeant knew was that he had never seen anything quite like it. Picky, picky, I thought -- and went on with my work.
So for about two weeks, the computer was beyond me. The salesman said installation was "idiot-proof," but I proved him wrong. I hooked up the printer the wrong way, did not understand how to "boot" the system and, in short, could not make the thing work. Now I can. I can even make my computer "talk" to the one in the office. The result is not quite what I expected. I work at home, all right. I also work in the office. I work, in fact, all the time.
A home computer is to workaholics what a bottle of booze is to alcoholics. I cannot stay away from it. A thought strikes me, and I bound to my study and start banging away on the old PC. Then I have my computer send what I've written to the computer in the office. Just to show you how sick I am, I do it the other way, too. Before I leave the office, I arrange things so that when I get home I can call up on my home computer what I've written that day.
I should have known. Grandson that I am of Louis the Socialist, I should have wondered why so many companies offer rebates to employees who buy home computers. They say they do this so their workers will become computer literate -- surely a contradiction in terms. I accepted that. (Grandfather, forgive me.) I should have known that no company does anything out of the goodness of its heart. They all know that we workaholics will toil for them on our own time. They are the contemporary versions of Tom Sawyer. We workaholics will whitewash every fence in sight.
I now work something like 16 hours a day. I hate to think of what I earn on an hourly basis. I send columns back and forth to my office. I have the computer at home call the one in the office for messages. Before I go to sleep, I check to see whether there are any messages on the computer in the office. Sometimes there are -- usually one saying someone has lost a ring. There are things you have to know before you can go to sleep.
When something goes wrong with my computer, I call a colleague. I always know where he'll be -- at his computer. Then the two of us work out the problem together while our wives sleep. This is bowling for Yuppies.
Now I know how wrong I was. The computer has not liberated me from my office. It has tethered me to it. I'm a worker-drone, a bee in the honeycomb of my career. I'm "liberated" now to work around the clock, and, as in "Macbeth," the computer has vanquished sleep. I could be working. I could always be working.
So beware the home computer. Neither buy nor rent one. Enjoy your leisure time, but understand that while you're goofing off, people like me are at our terminals getting ahead. The future is ours. The present just happens to be murder.