From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 22, 1997*Coffee, Anyone?

Computers are an integral part of my daily life. I work with them, occasionally play with them, and am in a constant and continual search for ways to integrate them into the learning process. The large amount of computer hours I clock in with each week should, I suppose, make me pretty much a technie. But if it does, it's only to a rather limited extent.

Only about six months ago did a VCR finally find its way into our home, and only two months ago, when she returned to work, did Tzippi purchase a cellular phone, so that if something goes wrong when travelling, she'll be able to phone for help. So far she's learned to haltingly enter numbers into the memory, and then to hesitatingly retrieve them when necessary - with the aid of the manual. For my part, I hardly know how to press Send. The stationary phone in our house is a rotary dial phone, and often we have to phone from a neighbor's house in order to be able to "push 1 for customer service", or "push five for the repairs department". We've been discussing purchasing a microwave since Hila was born, but still haven't done anything about it, and her bottles get warmed as were the boys' - we boil water in the kettle and then pour it into a jar with the bottle. The boys have a few toys that require batteries, but these are hardly technological wonders. Outside of the computer, birthday cards with chips that play music upon being opened are about the pinnacle of our home's technological possessions. I have to admit that the house is hardly a showcase for even a 1950's Tomorrowland dream of technological living, and if I'm a technie, I'm pretty much of the retro kind.

With an introduction of that sort I suppose that it shouldn't be surprising that I was pretty much the last holdout for installing ICQ at work. Yes, I'm fascinated by the interactive communications possibilities inherent in computer technologies, but that doesn't mean that I want to use them all the time. After all, at work it seems that the most popular use of ICQ is asking the person sitting at a computer about two meters away from you whether he wants to drink a cup of coffee. To my mind, that old tried and true standby, the human voice, is pretty sufficient for that task.

After a few weeks of using ICQ, however, I do have to admit that it's addictive. In general, the internet offers us one of the foremost desires of the MTV generation: instant gratification. If, for just a moment, we disregard the wait we've become all too accumstomed to, we'll certainly all agree that the immediacy of the internet is one of its most inviting aspects. Instead of going to a library we have our books brought straight to us on the computer screen. We no longer have to put stamps on envelopes and put our letters in a pick-up box, but instead have our mail at our fingertips. And with ICQ we can truly be in constant contact. No need to wait for e-mail to arrive - delivery is truly almost instantaneous.

But of course this raises a new question. Is all this really desirable? With my first computer I had a dot-matrix printer which was considered very fast for its time. Still, I hated having to wait for it to print out the long letters that I then primarily used it for, and when I was able to get my hands on spooling software I speedily installed it. Now I was able to print out a letter while I worked on preparing another document - until I discovered that I didn't really need all that speed (if that's what if could have been called). I'd gotten used to sending a letter to the printer and going myself to the refrigerator to see what sort of snack I could prepare myself. Upon returning, the computer was free again, and I had a sandwich or a cup of tea. It was a successful working relationship, and having a spooler infringed on the delicate balance I'd achieved.

In a similar vein, my work allows me to sit in front of a computer all day. There are people who might see that as a wonderful sort of job, but I prefer to be able to get up and walk around and visit with people. If I send something to the printer nothing requires me to walk over to it to immediately retrieve the printed pages, but doing so offers me a break from sitting all day at my desk. Along with the fun and satisfaction involved in being connected to almost the entire office with ICQ, I lose the chance to walk over and visit. And I doubt that many bosses will view ICQ as promoting efficiency. True, workers may spend more time at their desks, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be getting much work done - maybe they're simply chatting away with ICQ or some similar technology.

We, for instance, have experimented with Net Meeting. There are no doubt limitless possibilities there, and it's exciting to try and think of ways to realize them. White boarding is great fun, though I'm not sure how much can really be accomplished with it, and working on a common document seems very promising, though it raises numerous questions about efficiency and effectiveness. How useful is it, for example, to be able to work synchronously on the same document rather than, say, having one person pass it on to another, who adds his or her comments and passes it back, or on to another? I'm not sure that the immediacy gained really adds to the desired efficiency and effectiveness. Perhaps we've become so addicted to immediacy that we assume that whatever is immediate is also more effective. Then again, perhaps we're at a stage where we're still learning to use the tool, and once we've mastered it we'll know what it's good for.

Which sort of brings us to chat. Back in earlier, less web-intensive, times, chat was for techies, undergraduates and kids (are the last two one and the same?). Not that connecting to chat was particularly difficult then, but it was enough to frighten off those without much time on their hands. And the benefits weren't particularly clear either. You could visit cheaply with a friend from the other side of the world, but (speaking for myself) that was ultimately less satisfying than asynchronous e-mail that gave you the time organize your thoughts. Thus chat was a good medium for high school kids who met strangers from around the world. It allowed them to present themselves however they chose, and to meet others as they chose to present themselves.

Today just about every web site that respects itself has a chat channel, though I find it hard to figure out just what the benefits of chat might be on a site devoted to, for example, building construction. Be that as it may, chat certainly seems to be popular today, and that may simply be because deep down we all remain high school kids. I've entered chat a number of times via ICQ in order to demonstrate it to groups being introduced to internet. Invariably we always talk about the same thing: the fact that we don't have anything in particular to talk about, but that anyway, this is for demonstration purposes. Somehow we seem to forget that we're doing the demonstration because we want people to learn about a useful tool. What's it useful for? Apparently for demonstration purposes.

But we shouldn't belittle the value of tools such as ICQ, chat, Net Meeting, and the like, as aids in communication and in the establishment of friendships. For some reason unbeknownst to him, one of the people with whom I work has become the recipient of overtures of friendship from someone who found him via Net Meeting. He has received numerous photographs of this woman in various poses and stages of undress. Just what sort of friendship is being pursued in this manner isn't exactly clear, nor where it stops being virtual and becomes tangible, but there seems to be no denying that it definitely is a sort of communication and contact.

So ultimately we have a number of internet based tools that offer us immediate contact, even when we're not even seeking it, or in particular need of it. That can sometimes be great fun, and, though throughout this column I've questioned precisely how, even very useful. I mean, after all, it's a great way to invite someone to drink a cup of coffee... at least until someone finally manufactures a truly user-friendly computer that knows how to make a good cup of coffee by itself.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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