by James A., Joan, Jessica and Joshua Levine
James A. Levine is director of the Fatherhood Project at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. Joan Levine is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at City University of New York. At the time of this diary, Jessica and Joshua attended the Bank Street School for Children.
The Levines were among the first on their block to have a home computer. Herewith a slice of the computerized life from their family diary.
JAMES: Like a kid at camp waiting for a package full of candy, I've been checking the mail every day since Apple agreed to lend me a computer so I could keep a yearlong record of our family's entry into the electronic age. Today was the day-finally! But not everybody was thrilled when I unpacked the Apple II Plus in the living room. Seven-year-old Joshua literally danced around it, unable to believe his good fortune. Eleven-year-old Jessica greeted the newcomer with a combination of smug indifference and outright defiance. My wife Joan, a self-confessed computer-phobe, rose to a level of bemused tolerance.
JOAN: In our family, Jim always has to buy the latest gadget. He was the first person to have an electronic calculator, and we had Mr. Coffee before anyone else. So when the computer came, and Jim started right in talking double disk drive and printer and then fancy printer and color monitor, I thought: Oh God, this is going to be a very expensive gizmo!
JOSHUA: I got really upset when I found out that setting it up took more than five minutes.
JESSICA: I thought it was dumb to make such a big deal over a machine.
1/27/82: Snoggle Addiction
JAMES: Because I haven't had time to learn how to use this machine, and because using it takes longer than I thought, I gave in and bought a packaged game. The salesman was a stringbean of a kid with pale skin and black pants two inches too high above his shoe tops, one of the whiz kid types I'd always expected to find in those stores. He sold me a version of Pac-Man called Snoggle-a pie with one piece missing that scurries over our screen, swallowing little dots while escaping being swallowed by round white "ghosts."
At first Jessica largely avoided the game, making it clear she had the same disdain for the home computer that she shows for the new computer in her classroom. Joshua, always ready to try something new, took to it eagerly but is often frustrated. He can't coordinate his small seven-year-old fingers quickly enough to keep from having his character eaten.
Still, Josh is hanging in there. And Jessica has been sneaking in to play when no one is looking. They're getting more and more hooked. In certain ways it's my greatest computer fear come true: just another version of the idiot box, keeping the kids from reading, exploring, dreaming.
And yet I'm fascinated by their determination and dexterity. They move the Snoggle character confidently around the screen, acting very blasé about it while I stand there using body English to show that I want them to move in a different direction. They have, in effect, learned some sort of strategy, figured out the internal logic of the game. Is it any better, or worse, than the other games they play? My concern is that it doesn't seem to involve any deductive reasoning, any analysis. It's sort of like riding a bicycle, but without the virtue of fresh air, companionship or rigorous exercise. Anyway, they love it. They come running downstairs to report their scores or to tell us they've advanced to cherries or oranges, as if we knew what that meant. And once in the middle of a game they stick to the machine as if they were baby octopi with suction cups. I've had to turn the power off to get them to come to dinner or to the phone, even to talk to their friends. What's going on here?
JOAN: I feel the same way I felt about Sesame Street when the kids were little: something to do when "there's nothing to do." I wonder if the games aren't a way of making the computer less formidable, more familiar.
JAMES: Tonight Joshua was playing the hangman game, where the computer offers up a list of categories-household pets, presidents, colors, spelling-and then gives you blank spaces to guess letters for the word in your category. You can pick to play at the easy, hard or expert levels. It seemed like simplistic nonsense, but then I started playing with the presidents quiz and found it somewhat intriguing. It forced me to remember names of presidents I had long forgot. Tyler. Who remembers when Tyler was president?
Josh was as engaged as me, thinking of presidents I never even knew he knew-not just Carter and Reagan, but Hoover and Washington. I look forward to playing again tomorrow and involving Jessica in it if I can.
JOSHUA: The hangman game? I thought it was pretty stupid because it gave you such easy clues. The expert level just meant you started off at a farther end of the cliff so you could fall off in a shorter amount of guesses.
The best games are the ones where the computer does the least. Snooper Troops was kind of fun. It was neat being a detective and trying to find if there were ghosts haunting a house. And if there weren't, then who was haunting it? I also liked filling up all the rooms with prizes in Gertrude's Puzzles.
4/10/82: Time Out
JAMES: Joshua went to the eye doctor today. Nothing wrong with his eyes. Much wrong with what he's been looking at. The doctor advised that we limit his time at the computer, at least for a while, and that we make sure he has a light on when he uses it.
Josh was very upset when we told him he could only use the computer a half-hour per day. I don't think the new limit upset him as much as the thought that Jessica might get the upper hand.
JOSHUA: I still have the highest score on Snoggle.
JESSICA: No, I do-thirty thousand.
JOAN: I still worry about the kids' eyes. I guess the research isn't all in yet, so in the meanwhile moderate use is probably the best course.
4/24/82: Computers and the Nuclear Age
JAMES: This weekend we marched in the antinuclear rally in Central Park. Joshua didn't come with us, but he is not oblivious to what it meant. Like most of our friends' children, he is anxious about nuclear war.
What are these computer games going to teach him? Press a button and shoot an incoming spaceship. Press another button and launch a rocket. There is even a game to simulate the nuclear hazard at Three Mile Island. However sophisticated these toys, are they not desensitizing our children to the horror of war, even more so than television? What can rockets and reactors mean to a child who's been playing with them all his life?
JESSICA: People shouldn't be playing a game to figure out how to keep a nuclear plant from blowing up. They should be figuring out how to keep from building it in the first place.
8/23/82: Word Processing
JAMES: The typing skills Joshua has developed are incredible. Tonight, using the Bank Street Writer word processing package designed for children, he sat at the keyboard and typed a thank-you letter to my father. Seven years old, a pipsqueak plunked down in front of this fancy machinery, and yet he was totally comfortable and in control. From "Dear Papa Al" to the final "Love, Josh," it took about fifteen minutes to compose and print out two copies of a nicely done three-paragraph letter without a single error.
Not that Josh didn't make mistakes. "Kitten" was initially "kiten," first letters of sentences weren't capitalized, and new paragraphs didn't start where they should. But all of these were painless for Josh to correct. In fact, they were almost fun, because he had to find the mistakes (with my guidance) and then manipulate the cursor so he could correct them. It was a stark contrast to what happens when Josh hand-writes a thank-you note. Here there were no smudges. Each mistake was zapped away like an alien in one of the computer games, and the finished product-both on the screen and on the printed page-was neatly and clearly laid out.
But there's more of interest here than the finished product or the detection of mistyped words. The computer seems to lend itself to analysis of the written word. Because he could see so clearly what he had written, Joshua was able to decide if it was really what he wanted to say. Josh doesn't know it, but he is learning to edit.
JOSH: The Bank Street Writer? That's the easiest word processor in the world. It doesn't take any brains to print it out. I just used my common sense. It was so neat to see the stuff that was on the screen actually go onto the paper. I can't wait till Dad puts in this new chip that will help print out graphics.
JOAN: Now that I'm using the Bank Street Writer for my dissertation, I see what Josh means. But when I was learning it I had such an aversion that I needed his help every minute: I can't do this, I can't do that, this isn't working, how do I get this to go from write to edit mode? Maybe you have to be eight or under to understand this computer revolution.
9/15/82: Here to Stay
JAMES: Now that my journal keeping is behind me, the computer has become part of our home, accepted without the intensity of emotion that greeted its arrival. Jessica has overcome her defiance (and her Snoggle habit) and uses it occasionally for typing reports or playing games with friends. Joan hasn't entirely overcome her phobia, but she is much more enthusiastic about having the computer.
Joshua's first year of close encounter with the new technology has brought him from a simplistic ecstasy to a more complex interest. At the ripe old age of eight he seems to have learned that computers are tools that can be used (or abused) in many ways, that they are what we make of them.
As for me, I find myself using the computer more and more-for financial planning and so forth-and even keep it on a special mobile station so I can move the entire system from room to room. In fact, now that the new "baby" has been with us for a year, I can't help saying-like any proud parent-it's hard to imagine life without it.
JOAN: Doing my dissertation-correcting errors effortlessly and printing out new copies-is fantastic. I'm really glad we have the computer.
JESSICA: I wouldn't mind if you gave it away, but I don't really care.
JOSHUA: I think it's better that we have it. If we didn't, I think I'd get really bored.
Though America's small towns have always been perceived as slow to accept technology or new ways of life, personal computer users in these parts came down with "computer fever" early in the game. In fact, the now legendary Altair came out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, population three hundred thousand. We may not have access to the large computer shops or some of the exotic computer brands and applications programs that our big-city cousins take for granted, but many of us have substituted ingenuity for availability. Besides, with the growing number of computer store chains and such already established retailers as Radio Shack, we really aren't behind the times.
Just as pickup trucks and jeeps are more common in rural areas than in big cities, so certain personal computer models are more at home here. When IBM introduced its personal computer, the company ran magazine ads portraying Main Street U.S.A. and the many business uses for a PC in small-town America. The truth is that small businesses here are as likely to have a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II or III or 4 as an IBM. Because the Radio Shack chain reaches into areas where ComputerLands and KMarts are unknown, their models tend to be more popular. The inexpensive Color Computer, for example, received only lukewarmly in major urban areas, has become a favorite and has inspired an unprecedented outpouring of homespun software.
Here's just a sampling of our rural ingenuity.
• A choirmaster in Hercules, California, saves time by programming hymn songs in the computer, printing them and giving the printouts to the choir members. This also provides a special hymn list for his own use and is easier than writing everything in longhand.
• A man in State College, Pennsylvania, designed a program to help allocate his household spending. The program creates a bar-graph chart representing expenses for groceries, travel, water and electric bills, and other miscellaneous items.
• One Charleston, South Carolina, taxpayer created his own income tax program to help him "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." At the end of each quarter, receipts and checks are categorized. By the time income tax season arrives, he has the complete data for filing.
• A high school English teacher in Okemos, Michigan, was fed up with his students' complaints ("I don't have anything to write about!") when assigned to write a composition, so he developed a program that would ask questions geared to making them think about past knowledge or experiences. His program served as a memory jogger, making assignments easier for his students and himself.
Small-town computer users are eager to share their knowledge, and more than a few successful software firms have made their mark from addresses like Bellevue, Washington; Coarsegold, California; and Ogdensburg, New York. And though much of the writing about computers comes out of urban technology centers, among the by-lines in many of the country's leading computer magazines you'll find the names of plenty of small-town inhabitants.
LAWRENCE C. FALK, editor of The Rainbow magazine, published in Prospect, Kentucky, for TRS80 Color Computer users
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