Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 1/ January 1, 1995 / Page 12

Do Computers Matter?

by Peter Jerram (

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." - Picasso
OK, so Pablo was no computer genius. He was, however, the most influential artist of the century, and no slouch in the productivity department either. He irrevocably influenced all of the considerable media he tackled, which included ceramics, print making, and graphic art, as well as painting and works on paper. At the time of his death in 1973, he held over 50,000 of his own creations.

It is therefore tempting to speculate that Picasso might have found computers more provocative had they reached in his time a measure of their current evolutionary maturity. The old boy might have become quite a Photoshop wizard.

Today, in the wake of masturbatory fictions like the "information superhighway" (give me a break), and Bill Gates' overheated attempts to control our waking lives, it is equally tempting to wonder whether computers are any more important now than they were 30 years ago. By that I mean, do they make any difference to the average person? The easy answer, of course, is obvious. For a generation, computers have touched nearly everyone's lives. And these days, you can't get money, buy groceries, or make a phone call without being waited on by one of the little buggers. But so what?

They make daily chores easier; so does Mr. Coffee. The true measure of the impact of computers is their penetration into that ultimate arena of human acceptance, the home. Prognosticators for years have been making (wrong) predictions about the dawn of domestic conquest.

The Early '80s: Failed Attempts Barely Worth Mentioning

In the early '80s, Apple owned what then passed for the home computer market. Xerox, in a misguided attempt to become a player, bought a bunch of Apple stock and gave up the family jewels in the process--the original conceptual framework for today's ubiquitous GUIs, icons, and mouses.

But even Apple couldn't sell the cutesy interface to the masses; the only thing that saved its ass was an opportunistic defection to the business market. And of course, poor IBM missed the PC revolution altogether, and in the business markets to boot, its home turf. The PC Jr., it's pathetic swipe at the consumer market, isn't even worth mentioning.

As the '80s wore on, the industrial landscape was littered with failed attempts to crack the mainstream. Atari and Commodore nearly went out of business trying. Even Apple's Steve Wozniak, who many credit with inventing the personal computer, dropped out of the game, citing among other things the failure of the PC to make a difference on a wide scale.

Multimedia: Where to Stick the Kids After Dinner

On the cusp of the millennium, it seemed that computers were destined merely to crunch numbers and provide "answers." (OK, that's something of an understatement, but bear with me, I'm struggling to make a point here.)

Then came multimedia. Suddenly, home computers could do more than balance the checkbook; they could play Doom. Wow! Not only that, you could stick the kids in front of them and not hear a peep out of the little monsters until bedtime. Oooh, better than TV; and "educational" too!

We are, at long last, in the midst of nothing less than a truly astonishing consumer phenomenon. Computers now outsell every consumer electronics category except television. According to Businessweek, 7 million PCs destined for home use blew out of stores in 1994, and continued sales will make the humble domicile the largest computer market by the end of the decade.

Whew! I guess it's finally happening. And what are people doing with all of this silicon, you might legitimately ask? Why they're playing games, of course! That's right, Sparky, little Sally's education may be what brought the damn thing into the house in the first place, but blowing away aliens is what's keeping it there.

$Billions$ of Possibilities: Culture and the Kool-Aid Crowd

But what about the PC's vaunted educational potential, its inherent power to raise human consciousness and creativity to unprecedented heights? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Face it man, they're all playing Mortal Kombat. The game market makes all of that pious nonsense look like, well, pious nonsense. In 1994, games were a $5 billion business (that's a "5" with nine zeros after it). The entire movie business only did $5.2 billion.

OK, so maybe all this is just a mite jaded. I mean, there's got to be more to it than that, right? Wellllll..... no. (Just kidding). Alright, well, there's always multimedia encyclopedias. They're kind of cool, if you like that sort of thing. And certainly big sellers. (Kids sure dig 'em: cut, paste, and boom! Instant term paper. Just delete the copyright notice, and bingo, A+.)

So maybe there's some hope for home computers. After all, kids do love them. (Of course, they also love Kool Aid and sour grass; we're not exactly talking connoisseurs here).

But seriously, PCs are making their presence felt in some intriguing ways. If nothing else, the PC's emerging facility with image and sonic processing is leading to a glorious new means of expression and communicative power. And, uh, there are some really cool games. We're talking live action video, virtual environments, real-time 3D manipulation ... (Ahem.)

The Final Question (or, "How This Essay Got Its Title")

Do computers matter?

They've certainly progressed well beyond the mere answer dispensers dismissed by Picasso. Soon, perhaps very soon, computers may emerge as a truly profound influence on culture and civilization. Until then, we're playing games. ¤

Peter Jerram is free-lance journalist. In his spare time, he advises corporate clients on digital publishing and electronic delivery of information. He tolerates games and simply loves computers to death.

Copyright © 1995 by Peter Jerram. All Rights Reserved.

This Issue / Index / CMC Studies Center