Get over your fears

Computer Life column for October 17, 1998

Richard Gordon

I still encounter people who fear computers the way I fear surgery.

I don't like having surgery for two reasons: I don't fully understand what's happening, and I don't like surrendering control to people whom I don't know.

It can be hard to deal with things we don't understand. Because I am not trained as a medical professional, I don't fully understand what's going to happen when I go under the anesthesia.

For many of us, computers are mystical "black boxes"--complicated pieces of equipment with all sorts of fancy operations going on inside their beige cases.

But isn't that how many of us also view a lot of the things we use regularly? Unless you are an enthusiast, you probably don't go under the hood of your car every Saturday morning. Most of us don't worry about the engine--until we have a problem.

Eighty-five years ago, most people who drove cars either were mechanics themselves or always had a mechanic in the car with them.

Computing is still in that era. Today's computers are getting easier to use and navigate. However, under the hood, things still break down for obscure reasons.

In many families, what often happens is that one child ends up being the equivalent of the mechanic--the guy the driver turns to when that electronic Stanley Steamer locks up.

When your body needs surgery, or when you buy a computer or need a computer repair, you surrender control over processes you don't fully understand to someone else.

When I had knee surgery this July, I noticed that the nurses, anesthesiologists, and other "new" people took care to introduce themselves to the patients before beginning to work on any of us. In essence, they were trying to lessen the patients' fears by trying to make us feel that we were not with strangers in funny clothes. By the time my doctor arrived to do the surgery, I did feel I knew some of these people--and it did make me feel better.

Have you noticed how some computer companies are trying to market themselves in the same way? Gateway has probably done the best job of implementing this strategy. Their television and print ads are all aimed at making you feel that you have a friend in the business, that the computer you order will be built just for you. Look at how they market their financing package that lets you buy a computer over four years. They don't call it "special financing"--they call it "Your :) Ware."

It's the same advertising approach that GM's Saturn division has taken: The car is built for you; you're part of our family, not just a customer.

In both cases, being prepped for surgery or being swayed by "folksy" advertising for an expensive item you don't fully understand, someone is trying to lessen your fears of surrendering control to strangers.

In spite of my fears, because I knew it was necessary, I let Dr. Kalman and his crew fix my knee.

If you are a computerphobe, you need to recognize that, within the next five years, it's likely you will need to use a computer for a lot of daily activities--even though you don't understand how it works and even though it may require you, at times, to place yourself in someone else's hands.

Tip of the week

Have you tried re-booting?

For reasons that you and I do not understand, sometimes our computers lock up or freeze. Often, these situations come up because of a conflict between two programs over a particular part of the computer's memory.

The simplest way to treat this symptom is often to restart the computer.

This simple fix implies that you are saving your work regularly--so that none is lost when you reboot.

Conflict-resolution software is available for both Macintosh and Windows systems; however, it doesn't catch all the conflicts. If your computer "locks up" a lot, you may need to summon an expert to eradicate the problem.

Copyright © 1998, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.