Not long ago I became part of a trend, both nationally and here in the Valley. Like the other Americans who bought 50 million personal computers last year alone, I bought a new PC--a better, faster, more powerful model than the Stone Age IBM clone my son took off to college eight years ago. This is the story of the first weeks of the bittersweet romance between me and my new IBM compatible.
I have a standard answer for friends who ask what kind of computer I bought. "It's beige," I tell them. Because I knew from the outset that I didn't want to devote the rest of my adult life to figuring out how much electronic firepower I needed, I turned the task over to my 24-year-old son, Eric.
Computer-literate (computer-gifted, if you ask his mother), Eric made lists of possible options and checked them twice. He tapped his more expert pals for advice, then worked the phones to compare prices. Finally, he asked an especially knowledgeable friend, Mark Bentkower, if he would join us, and we made an appointment at a computer store known for customizing PCs at a competitive price.
At the store Eric and Mark did most of the talking. They had strong views on such things as how fast the modem should be. They spoke of the rate in bits per second and baud. Baud? I'm a recovering English major. When I hear baud, I think of the Wife of Bath, Moll Flanders, \o7 those \f7 bawds. Actually, I too know that baud rate indicates how quickly your computer sends or receives information. As such, it has a major impact on how much you enjoy your system. Too slow a modem will drive you crazy and will ultimately cost you a fortune in phone charges (since the modem is the part of the system that allows you to connect with other computers and exchange information over phone lines). The higher your baud, the better.
From Day One, I had decided to have the kind of relationship with my computer I have with my Honda. What matters to me is that it works, not how it works. I don't want be a computer doctor when I grow up. But not everybody feels that way about their machine helpers. Earlier this year, at a conference on women and the Internet at the Huntington in San Marino, I ran into the aptly named Rhonda Super. A North Hollywood resident, Super, 42, works in the entertainment industry and dreams of the day when she will configure the elements she has so carefully researched into the computer of her dreams. "I \o7 love \f7 hardware," says Super. "I like making quilts, and I think it's the same concept. You construct something."
I don't make quilts, but I did write the check after the Biederman deal was struck.
To be really accurate, I would describe my new computer as ecru.
Getting Started, or Is There Anything on TV?
If you are like most people, which is to say, if technology doesn't make you tingle, the first thing that happens when you get a new computer is that you are afraid of it. Not the way you're afraid of getting carjacked or losing the game of life, but the way you're afraid of having to program your VCR in a timed test. You're intimidated. This happens to virtually everyone. Actor John Goodman was brave enough to screech at Elizabeth Taylor in "The Flintstones" movie, but he recently revealed on a TV talk show that he had just bought a new computer and--these are his exact words--"I'm scared to death of it."
There's a reason for this. Computer culture isn't nearly as amicable as terms such as \o7 user-friendly \f7 would lead you to believe. Cyberculture has a we're-hip-and-you're-not aspect to it that can put off all but the most confident. For example, take the Internet (please). Finding your way onto the Internet may be the single hardest thing you will ever have to do (see accompanying story). Even the guides to the Internet seem to be written in secret code.
Part of the reason the Internet is harder to join than an Afrikaner country club is that nobody who is already on the Internet really wants to help you over the Great Technodivide to their side, where the cool people pass electronic notes at the speed of light. And once you do manage to get connected, "newbies," as Internet plebes are called, are often treated to cyberscorn, especially if they came aboard via a commercial access provider.
So what's gonna happen is one day, soon after you unpack your new computer, you're going to sit down in front of your monitor, hands hovering Van Cliburn-like over the keyboard, focusing all your mental energy on whatever computing task lies before you, and you're going to decide: To hell with it. I wonder if anything good's on cable?
One evening recently, I was making up excuses for not practicing on the computer when my son finally got impatient.
"Come on, Mom," he said.
\o7 "Carpe datum." \f7
Those Pesky Gender Differences