Why do people use computers? It may seem an obvious question, or a pointless question, but every now and then it’s worth asking exactly why we do the things we do. For me there have always been three big reasons why we use computers: one, to help us to work better; two, to make us feel better; three, to make us financially better off (which means either saving money, or helping us to make more money). If none of these criteria is being met is there any point in using a computer? Or, more relevantly, if you are upgrading your computer or software (and of course you might not have much choice about this) will it help you to work better, or feel better, or will there be any financial gain compared to what you are currently using?
In over 25 years of working in offices – often in IT departments – the first and third reasons for using computers have often been easy to quantify. The next two, rather detailed, paragraphs give some examples.
In the late 1980s I prepared a lot of copy that had to be printed professionally. I would type my words (on a typewriter, or later on my first PC) and send the typed or printed words to a printing firm. Someone there would re-key the text onto a dedicated printing machine. There was no interface capable of working with the files that I was saving on floppy disks, so even when I was using my own computer the words had to be re-keyed, proof-read, and corrections submitted back to the printers. Later (by 1990) we were using a printing company with Mac-based computers, so I was able to take my 5¼” IBM PC-format floppy disks to a bureau, have the files converted to Mac format (on 3½” floppy disks), take it to the printing firm (there was no internet available to people like me in those day), and avoid a whole unnecessary layer of time and money (a third party re-keying my text, me proofing it, someone else making corrections). We worked better and we saved money. And I felt a whole lot better about the process too. It was one of those times when all three of my big reasons for using a computer were satisfied.
Around the same time I started training people on how to use computers, mostly word processing and publishing apps (spreadsheets and presentation graphics software were seen as more specialist in those days, but we did some of that too). For a while I even trained people on dedicated word processing machines by long-forgotten companies like AES (Xios) and Wang, and long-discarded hardware by companies like IBM (their DisplayWriter series) and Philips (5020 and 5040 series). The first training courses I delivered were for recruitment companies (“temping agencies”) and the rewards for those attending the courses were very clear. Back then (in the late 80s and early 90s) a touch typist could earn between £3.50 and £4 per hour. They used typewriters, many of which were surprisingly sophisticated – they could even perform some basic word processing tasks like storing a line or two of text so that you could edit or erase words before typing them, and you could copy and paste small amounts of text from line to line. After one day’s training on a word processing course (with me) they could earn between £5 and £5.50 as a “word processing operator”. That meant that a single day’s training could increase their earnings by 25-40%. The return on investment for a training course has never been this easy to quantify in my entire working life. One day’s training, increase your earnings by 25-40%, guaranteed. And if it hadn’t worked out they would still be no worse off than they were to begin with: the delegates were paid to attend the training. If not they wouldn’t have come, and the recruitment firm wouldn’t have had enough candidates to fill all the jobs that they had.
If you ever find a one-day training course that will increase your earning capacity by 25-40%, could you tell me about it too? I have come across nothing comparable in the last 20 years.
And now that we are in the era of consumer-led computer purchase, never underestimate the feel-good factor that so many people have when using their devices, especially Apple users. I know many people who take every opportunity to tell others just how much they hate Apple (some of them also hate the music of Elvis Presley, and I’ve written about them elsewhere). But I know more people who just love their Apple hardware. See them with their iPads and their iPhones and their Mac Book Air computers. These devices make them feel better. Even if they could buy a cheaper device to perform the same tasks as their Apple devices they wouldn’t: they love those machines. I regard myself as balanced between the two extremes of love and hate for Apple devices. I like any technology that works. These words are being typed on a Mac Book Pro. It works, it does what it’s supposed to, my internet connection is working. I’m happy. And if I were typing on my Samsung Windows 7 netbook, purchased in 2010 and still working fine, I would still be happy, though I wish it would stop nagging me to upgrade to Windows 10. I don’t care that 100 million people have already upgraded their devices for free. I don’t believe that it will help me to work better, or feel better, or be any better off financially.