The Computer

We live in an age where computers are all around us. While they may not yet be embedded into every object we come in contact with, they are on our desks at home or in the office, and in our pockets and bags when we’re out and about. But one thing worries me, few of these people understand how to use these powerful machines, or leverage them to even half their potential.

Computers were once large, unwieldy things, operated by a series of trained individuals. Today, you have read this merely by punching a few keys (onscreen or physical) or clicking a link or two, everything from fetching the data on a disk, assembling it, processing it, sending it to you and assembling, processing, and displaying that has been done for you.

Computers have evolved to make jobs easy. Once upon a time when your boss asked you to send a personalised letter out to a few hundred people, you would have had to have found each contact, copy the relevant details onto the letter, then the relevant details onto the envelope. Today when your boss asks you to do this, technologies such as mail merge mean that you can point your letter and envelope templates at a bunch of addresses and have your computer churn out all of the details you need. Why, then, do people still try and do this manually? Why do people still manually search through electronic documents, one document at a time? Why do people paste screenshots into Microsoft Word!?

I argue that some functions of a computer have become really simple, while other concepts are still quite obscure. While someone might be able to piece together a simple mail merge using their address book, the thought of using the same principle to read details from a spreadsheet and input them into a word processing document just never crosses their mind.

This very situation has arisen before. I was working in an office almost two years ago, the staff regularly used such things as mail merge for letters using the companies network address book. They were migrating to a system where they needed a form filled out for every directory created (detailing access rights, when deletion was due, etc.), the problem was that they had already created a shed load of directories…The staff had started to catalogue these by hand, getting somewhere between twenty to sixty forms done a day (they had other duties as well). For me, it took a day of messing about with some VBScript and I could list all of these directories in a text file. I could import this text file into Excel using ’’ as a delimiter, this meant I could separate the path names as the form requested. I found that it was very easy to see what group of directories had what attributes and found I could copy & paste an awful lot. When finished, all of this was mail merged into the Word document which held the form. After a day of downtime, I could now process eighty directories an hour. OK, the VBScript was a little specialist, but no general user thinks of doing this kind of thing.

Users generally don’t even know what applications are there for. Most people know that if you want to put a nail in a plank of wood, a hammer is the tool for the job, not a kettle. Sure the kettle is hard and has a handy handle, but that’s not what it’s for. The word processor is so often misused. Many people seem to use their word processing application as a place to paste that image they just copied (or screen grabbed), they then send this document to other people using email. At school we were encouraged to use Microsoft Word to create a poster, this was supposed to be both fun and educational of which is was neither. Word doesn’t lend itself to creating posters, alignment of images, text boxes, and the like go squiffy when you decide to rearrange another element. Though other members of the Microsoft Office suite are also abused. Excel is used to standardise the input of information, and PowerPoint has been known to create ‘screen savers’.

While it is easier than ever to write a letter, few people know how to write one, those who do will use a word processor and completely ignore the fact that for the last however many years they have placed the receiver’s address in the top left corner and the sender’s address in the top right, instead we get a mishmash of one address below the other on different sides of the page, or a complex arrangement of spaces and tabs, which gets completely thrown when you change the margin sizes… I can’t recall the number of times I’ve been sent a document and found that when the author wanted to break to the next page they have held their finger on the ‘return’ key until the cursor jumps to the next page, without a thought that perhaps the software might do this for them, forgoing them the hassle of removing the extra empty lines when the add more text later on and find the page blow suddenly starts halfway down the page. Headings are another one, people want something large and bold, so naturally they set the font size to around 18 and make it bold, they then moan that after writing 20,000 words for their report that all the headings are slightly different. If they had used the various headings (you know, the ones generally found in the top left of your word processor), then all the headings would be the same, and could be changed in one fell swoop by adjusting the documents styles.

Email is still used to transfer important files around an organisation. Despite the fact that email wasn’t developed to transfer files, it is a terrible waste of resources, with each recipient holding their own copy of the file.

It is so easy to shove a mouse around a desk that people are no longer taught how to use the tools placed in front of them, and these same people don’t seem capable of using two of the worlds biggest resources available to them: The Internet and Google. If you don’t know how to do something it’s bound to be explained on the internet…

Thankfully computing is now heading in the right direction. Our smart phones and online services do even more for us than our computers do, they organise us and our data - be that photos, music, emails, etc. People don’t have to worry so much what format their data is in. Especially in the new wave of smart phones and tablets, we are finding new and intuitive ways to achieve tasks. These ‘post PC’ devices are generally managed from a PC but after reading an article in issue 90 of the iCreate magazine, a reader had written in and said that they had used their iPad for six months (since last summer) and had not plugged it into their computer, this shows us that people are using these as standalone devices connected to other devices through the Internet. The iPad or online service was organising photos, music, email, RSS feeds, etc. The user just had to get on and use it.

A new wave of computing is upon us and I hope it strips the complexity from tasks, rather than stripping away the functionality altogether.