Computers: Where the Joys Are

right now, computers in households are more fun than useful-but for businesses, they are so useful they make working fun

By: Peter A. McWilliams

Playboy, November 1988 p. 106

Last month, we took a look at what personal computers are. This month we will explore what they can-and cannot–do.

To ease our exploration, let’s divide the use of personal computers into two categories: home and business. This follows the generally accepted cliché that we spend one third of our lives at home, one third of our lives at the office, and one third of our lives in bed.

We’ll skip the bed third. Computers are worthless there. What’s worthwhile in bed is covered (complete with photographs, diagrams, graphic prose and Oriental woodcuts) in other parts of Playboy.

In the remaining two thirds of life, personal computers are decidedly more useful in business than in the home.

Never one to avoid the obvious, I’d like to state that computers compute. Computing is adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing, watching over numbers the way a shepherd watches over sheep.

The question is, how many numbers in the average home need shepherding? Not many.

Certainly not as many as in the average office. (Computers reduce everything to numbers. Binary numbers, to be sure, but still numbers. Words, people, parts-everything gets a number, then the computer manipulates the numbers.) There may be as much going on in a four-person home, as there is in a four–person office–if not more–but the office has more of the repetitive, predictable, easily reduced–to–numbers activities that computers adore.

Balancing a personal checkbook on a personal computer, for example, is a waste of time. You can add a deposit or subtract a withdrawal by hand (with the help of a pocket calculator, if you’re like me) and have the entire process completed before you can get the proper disc into the computer and turn it on.

In addition, pocket calculators cost five dollars. Checkbook programs for personal computers cost $30.00. A record of your checks kept in your checkbook is portable. Records kept in your computer are not. Your checkbook will accept anything for a date 11/5, Nov. 5, the 5th, the first Saturday in November, one week later–whatever you find helpful. Computer programs require a specific format, such as MM-DD-YY (computer talk for month-month, date-date, year-year.)

The same is true for many of the highly advertised uses of computers around the home. You can file recipes better with a 99-cent card file and 3” x 5” cards than you can on a $3000 computer. Addresses are better managed in a little black book than on a little black disk. A three-dollar appointment calendar is far more practical for one’s personal life than the most elaborate scheduling program. And all that talk about putting the household budget on a computer: Do you know anyone who even has a household budget?

There is no point in putting information into a computer unless you plan to manipulate the information elaborately and frequently. Businesses tend to do that with names, numbers, addresses and words.

Households do not.

Eventually, however, personal computers will find a way into almost every home. In ten or 20 years, they will be as invaluable as telephones. Telephones were first installed as emergency devices, to summon aid. It was years before people used them to “reach out, reach out and just say hi.” There wasn’t a telephone in the Oval Office until Herbert Hoover.

But even today, at the dawn of its usefulness in the home, there are three good reasons for putting a personal computer in the home: (1) games, (2) kids, (3) curiosity.  

Computers play games very well, from chess to backgammon to a new genre of recreational activity, appropriately enough, computer games. They provide worthy opponents for solo play or impartial refereeing and accurate scorekeeping for paired combat.

There are mental games, strategy games, action games, even X-rated games. Computer games are marvelous recreation. Far from viewing them as a waste of time, I tend to go along with Professor Harold Hill, who once said in defense of billiards, “I consider that the hours I spend with a cue in my hand are golden. Help you cultivate horse sense and a cool head and a keen eye.” The same could be said of joy sticks today.

But then, there are those who are of another opinion. Bette Midler said, “I was invited over to a guy’s house for an evening of Donkey Kong. Boy, was I disappointed to find out it was only a game.” (Midler, in fact, cannot understand the computer revolution. “I got into show business,” she says, “so I wouldn’t have to do data processing.”

Kids love computers. Not just because of the games, either, but because they are the latest thing, the state of the art. And, as usual, the newest technological development has created a bit of generation gap. Indoor plumbing, central heating, movies, radio, television–each had its friends and enemies on opposites of the age spectrum. Today, it’s computers and computer games. Whatever it is that their parents can’t possibly understand, kids will usually embrace.

Computers hold a fascination, too, because, for the first time, kids can make the TV do what they  want it to. All their lives, they have watched television come at them. Hook a computer up to the TV and, finally, they have control. Pac-Man goes where they tell him to go. They can help Indiana Jones find the lost ark. Kids can write programs that make the TV say or do anything. While adults balk at learning programming languages, kids feel that if that’s what it takes to communicate with their new friend, they’ll learn from them. “Parents ask, “What’s the point?” Kids ask, “How can I make the screen turn blue?”

Despite their legions of young followers, computers are still educational.

At least, that’s what every kid and computer company would like every parent to believe. In truth, computers are currently good only at teaching things by rote–spelling, multiplication tables, and the like–expensive electronic versions of the old flash cards. That will change as computers memories increase and more programs are written.

Of course, you don’t need children to get a home computer. For those of us in the older generation (the ones, now approaching 40, who said never trust anyone over 30), it may be the love of gadgetry that will get us to buy one.

For others, it’s simply curiosity: What are those television-typewriters for, anyway?” As those late-night public-service announcements about foreign-exchange students say, there’s no better way to find out than to invite one into your home. A few hundred dollars invested in an inexpensive home computer, and a few evenings of fiddling with it, will provide you with enough information to become a first citizen of the computer age.

You will never, by the way, need to learn how to program a computer in order to operate one. Writing computer programs is a creative act and an exciting one for many; but then, so is making a movie. Most of us buy tickets and watch other people’s movies, and most of us will buy software and run other people’s programs. I can’t program my computer to do anything practical, but I can buy programs that make it do practical things, and that’s good enough for me.


I think computers, for most homes, are the food processors of the Eighties. For gourmet cooks, food processors are marvelous. For the rest of us, they can’t even make a decent milk shake. The number of food processors in suburban kitchens collecting suburban dust will be surpassed sometime in 1984 by that of personal computers stuffing overstuffed closets.

However dim my view of computers in the home, I am optimistic about personal computers’ finding a home in business–all businesses, large and small.

In the United States, large computers do the work each day of three trillion clerical workers. Naturally, the large computers that do the work for the large companies that can afford them. Small computers offer the same edge to small businesses.

But big businesses have not taken that equalizing of competition lying down; oh, no. They are buying personal computers for their managers and middle managers and secretaries and janitors and anyone else they think may be able to use some increased sufficiency. In big business, those are now known as personel computers.

A bit of history: One hundred years ago, the population of the United States was growing so fast that the 1880 census took eight years to process. It was estimated that the 1890 census would take 12 years. At that rate, we would know by 1985 what the population had been in 1930. A better way of counting people had to be found, and it was: the 1890 census machine.

It was the brain child of John Shaw Billings and Herman Hollerith. (Pictured, above). Hollerith distributed to the census takers dollar-bill holders and preprinted punch cards. (The dollar-bill holder had already been invented; hence, the size and the shape of computer punch cards for generations to come was determined by the dimensions of the 1890 dollar bill. There’s an irony in there somewhere.)

The census taker would put a punch card into the holder, punch holes in the appropriate locations while conducting the census and send the completed cards to Washington. There they were fed into a machine that read the holes and tabulated the results. The 1890 census took only three years, and Hollerith was a hero.

To market his invention (now called The Tabulating Machine), [pictured, below, ]

he turned to big business. The consumer public was, after all, having enough trouble accepting such recent inventions as the light bulb, the phonograph, the automobile, the telephone and indoor plumbing. Hollerith joined a company that eventually called itself International Business Machines.

In 1939, IBM joined with Harvard and created the first electromechanical computer, the Mark I (pictured, below). It was the size of a 7-Eleven and had 530 miles of wire and 765,299 parts, including 3304 relays. This behemoth could add, subtract, multiply, divide and, most important, prepare mathematical tables for the forthcoming World War.  

By the mid-Fifties, there were Univacs and IBMS all over the big-business landscape. Digital came along with its cheaper computers (a mere $120,000 per) in 1960, and while most of America was deciding whether or not to invest $500 in a color TV, thousands of businesses were buying computers.

The late Seventies started a new chapter in computer history: the personal computer. Some small-business people started using personal computers for accounting or word processing or cost projection. The big computer companies weren’t interested in such small fish, but Radio Shack and Apple and a few others started making a lot of money, and the big computer companies had a change of heart. IBM introduced a small computer and the big computer companies said, but of course we have one, too. And so personal computers were firmly established in business, and they all lived happily ever after. End of story.

What is it about personal computers that makes them so irresistible to businesses, both large and small? Well, they’re cheap, for one thing. Sure, $2000, $3000, $4000, $5000 is expensive for you and me, but for a business it’s not much, especially when you consider what that business gets for its money.

In these days of increasing labor costs and decreasing labor skills, personal computers have become the Mighty Mouse of business (“Here I come to save the day .   .   .”) Computers do their work reliably, uncomplainingly, 24 hours a day, if necessary, with no vacations, sick leaves, unions, salary or coffee breaks.

Besides, computers are best at the kind of work human beings hate: mechanical, repetitive manipulation of words and numbers. A personal computer can sort a mailing list of 10,000 into Zip Code order in about ten minutes. Can you imagine how long that would take a human? And how painfully dull the process would be?

But the computer doesn’t care. You can tell it to re-sort the list in alphabetical order by last name, and ten minutes later, a new list of 10,000 alphabetized names is ready. Want the name of a person who lives on Elizabeth Court? Ask it to find Elizabeth Court and it will–within minutes. (Given a mailing list of 10,000, that’s roughly equivalent to examining every article in this magazine looking for a single word.)

Those are extreme examples, showing how a single personal computer can eliminate hours, if not days, of tedious work. Not everything the computer does telescopes two days into ten minutes. But if a personal computer only doubled the efficiency of the person using it, it would pay for itself in six months (and that’s including two months of training and transition time).

Let’s look at some of the things personal computers do well in business.

Word processing. When I sat around my manuscript for The Word Processing Book two years ago, the New York publishers asked, “What’s word processing?” Today, even people who claim to know nothing about computers know that word processing is using a computer to write with.

I can’t spell and I’m a terrible typist, so when I heard about a marvelous machine that would correct my spelling and never again make me retype anything, I knew I had to have one. That was my introduction to personal computers.

Four years later, I can’t imagine writing, or running a business, without one. Letters, articles and reports can be revised and retyped (reprinted, actually) in a matter of minutes, not hours. Personally “typed” form letters can be churned out at the rate of one per minute. Labels for our hypothetical 10,000-person mailing list can be printed in less than a day. Over and over, time is saved and tedium reduced.

Word processing, in fact, goes on in the human mind. The various tools of word processing–pens, pencils, typewriters–are simply there to remind one of what has already been processed. A personal computer outfitted with a word-processing program is the best tool to date for assisting the word-processing mind.

To demonstrate, let’s turn to The Word Processing Book and take the work of that beloved poet Isadora Goose, known affectionately to all as Mother. Let’s suppose that the well-known journal of poetics Humpty Dumpty has asked us to update a few of Mrs. Goose’s better known poems. We will do it very much as Isadora herself might if she were alive today with a word processor at her peck and call. Let’s take the classic Little Miss Muffet.

Little Miss Muffet

Sat on her tuffet,

Eating her curds and whey.

Along came a spider

And sat down beside her

And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Now, we know we’ll have to keep the basic structure of the piece, maintaining the natural rhythm and as many rhymes as possible. Our job is to update, not rewrite.

The first word that stands out is tuffet. A tuffet, in this context, might be either a mound of grass or a stool. Mother’s meaning is not certain here. She states that Miss Muffet owned  the tuffet when she says “sat on her tuffet.” However, the word little seems to imply that Miss Muffet may be too young to be a landowner; hence, tuffet may refer to a stool or a seat. Nonetheless, spiders are more commonly found out of doors on grassy tuffets. It is a puzzlement, and great books have been written on this very subject by men and women far more learned than I.

The point is that you don’t hear the word tuffet used very much in either context anymore. Real-estate salespersons do not extol the beauty of a garden “with flower beds, beautiful shubbery and several very nice tuffets.” And advertisements do not appear saying “Dining-room set complete with break front, table and six tuffets.” No, tuffet will have to go.

But what to replace it with? I like the idea that Ms. Goose meant tuffet to mean stool. Too many poems have been written outside, going on and on about the beauty of the out of doors. We need more poems about the beauty of the in of doors. The two-syllable word nearest to stool, remembering that we must keep the Goose’s meter, is barstool. Everyone knows what a barstool is–even the readers of Humpty Dumpty.

With the press of a few buttons on our word processor, we find that the first two lines have become:

Little Miss Muffet

Sat on her barstool, .  .  .

The Muffet part must go. It no longer rhymes. The Miss will, of course, become Ms. In that light, little seems a bit sexist, too. The entire first line needs an overhaul. What’s a contemporary rhyme for barstool? Why, of course, car pool. Wonderful. Teach the kids the importance of conversation from grade one. Miss Muffet is now Ms. Car Pool. We’ve lost an alliteration, though, the two Ms in Miss Muffet. And what about little? What adjective describes this truly contemporary Ms. Car Pool and begins with an M? Why, of course, modern.

Modern Ms. Car Pool

Sat on her barstool,

Eating her curds and whey.

Curds and whey are the solid and the liquid part of milk when it curdles. It was very popular back when people sat around on tuffets. It has since lost its popularity. Ms. Car Pool would be sitting at a bar eating curdled milk. A banana daiquiri, maybe; curdled milk, no. We are, however, writing for a children’s magazine, so we can’t make this too contemporary. She’ll have to be eating some healthy dairy product.

Further, whatever she’s eating will have to rhyme with whey, because we want to keep as many of the original rhymes as possible, and we’ve already departed from that in the first two lines. Muffet does not rhyme with car pool, no matter how far we stretch it.

What rhymes with whey and is a healthy dairy product? Simple: Yoplait, the brand name for a kind of yogurt. Yoplait yogurt, unfortunately, does not rhyme with curds and whey. We must invoke our poetic license and switch Yoplait and yogurt around, very easy to do on a word processor.

Modern Ms. Car Pool

Sat on her barstool,

Eating her yogurt Yoplait.

Along came a spider

And sat down beside her.  .   .   .   .

The stuff about the spider is OK. I mean, it’s traditional. Besides, spider and beside her make a great rhyme. Then we come to the last line: “And frightened Miss Muffet away.”

 “You will never need to learn how to program a computer in order to operate one.”