John Gilbert reads more into two new books which aim to show the lighter side of computing.
IT HAD to happen. Someone has had the courage to print an expose of the whole truth about the computer industry and its inmates. Micromania, by Charles Platt and David Langford, takes computing to pieces and finds the comedy under the skins of big business and the individual computer user. It does so by using a hatchet of slapstick humour with an ungainly mixture of cliches and buzzwords.
The book provides a compendium of insights into the personalities of those who use computers. The authors may be interested in the machines but they are ready to make fun of the behaviour of their fellow maniacs.
They divide users into four classes - the hardware freak, the video game nut, the end-user and the hacker. The descriptions of those people are as cruel as the names used to label them. A video games junkie is, for example, described as 'between 10 and 16 years of age, mentally if not physically'. The authors then describe video games as 'boring and, sooner or later, an intelligent person will notice this'. On the other hand, as the authors fail to admit, an intelligent person might not.
It is ridiculous to say that all video games players are idiots or morons. There are, of course, people addicted to those games, just as there are people addicted to barbiturates or aspirin, but many computer users play video games as a form of relaxation or entertainment. The criticism that computer users are junkies hooked on bashing a computer keyboard all day and night is, therefore, too general to be taken very seriously.
Micromania is also peppered with a long series of rules governing computers, called Platt's Laws. They cover all areas of computing and most of them make sense when the veneer of sarcasm as removed. For instance, 'the man who invests a lot in a system will swear by it in public, even if he swears at it in private' is funny but also true about ZX-81 owners who envy IBM owners. Also true is 'no matter how expensive you expect a system to be, it will always end up being more expensive than you expect'. Every micro owner would say that never a truer word was spoken.
The general structure of the book is inventive, to say the least. Each chapter is labelled with a binary number, beginning with 0000 and rising to 1101. The text is split into modules which is reminiscent of the way in which programs should be structured. It also shows that the authors are part of the computer world of which they are making fun.
Chapter 1101 deals with the future of microcomputing, a subject which would have been a glaring omission from a book dealing with the whole computer scene. The authors may ridicule the denizens of the computer industry but they agree that our future is in their hands: "We can laugh all we like at micromanics, but they will have the last laugh - because they are designing the future that the rest of us will have to live in."
Micromania costs £7.95 in hardback and can be obtained from Victor Gollancz Ltd.
The Naked Computer, by Jack Rochester and John Gantz, is similar to Micromania in its ridicule of the computer scene but it provides more anecdotes and concentrations on big business. The book starts by looking at the computer invasion and the most successful and unsuccessful computer ventures.
The most ubiquitous computer? The Commodore Vic-20, one million strong at the end of 1982. The least ubiquitous? The CDC G-20, of which there is one left.
The future of high technology and information technology is discussed throughout the book, with a round-up in the last chapter. It is those parts of the book which are the most interesting and, possibly, most useful if you want to demonstrate your knowledge of computers. The style used to describe the innovations in technology is if anything too involved and few beginners would understand terms such as FOBS - fractional orbit bombardment system - charged particle beam and even satellite-mounted laser cannons. Few of those terms are explained in depth and it seems again that the authors are seeking a quick laugh.
The final chapter, The Outer Limits, is like Micromania in that it tries to explain what could happen in the next few decades so far as technology is concerned. The book looks at new IBM projects, research into chip use done at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the way in which robots are being used by the U.S. Army. What it does not explain is the incredible influence the home computer industry is likely to have on the prices of computer-related components, such as RAM chips, and whether the home industry will have a good or adverse effect on high technology and information technology in the long run.
Like all the other chapters, The Outer Limits is a collection of anecdotes, although some of the authors' thoughts are included. The book leaves the reader with the feeling that the authors were afraid to approach the subject in anything but the impersonal third person. The authors give their views only a few times and they are only as postscripts to yet more anecdotes.
Despite that, The Naked Computer is an enjoyable book. It costs £9.95 in hardback and can be obtained from Arlington Books.
Victor Gollancz Publications, 14 Henrietta Street, London WC2
Arlington Books, Clifford Street, Mayfair, London W1