Monday, April 1, 1996

Week of 04/01/1996

An Electronic Nightmare From The Not-So-Distant Future
-by David Matthews 2

A computer?

Sure, I still have one. It's sitting in my den collecting dust.

But there used to be a day back in the mid-90's when that computer and I were the best of friends. There wasn't a day when I didn't turn it on and actually used it for a half-dozen purposes. Of course, those were different times. Back then the computer world had something for everyone.

Last week I removed the dust cover and turned the computer on, trying to recap the thrill of when I first started it. The old model seemed to hum with glee.

A minute later, Microbrain Billy appeared on my screen, asking me what I wanted it to do. After dusting off the keyboard, I ask Billy to open up the main program file. After a few guffaws and knock-knock jokes, the main program file appeared. Of course Microbrain didn't start out with lame cartoons and bad jokes. Once upon a time they had a respectable, easy-to-operate system for computer users. Then came the special interest groups and the social experts who said that the average computer user was getting younger and younger. Then the parents complained that they didn't have enough time to sit down and learn how to use the computer never mind supervise their kids on it. So Microbrain made their smart systems dumb. Very dumb. Dumb enough for most idiots to understand.

I looked inside the main program. The only programs left were an outdated word processor, a spreadsheet with a flawed math processor, a calculator that couldn't divide or deal in percentages, and of course "Uncle Wizzo's Fun House." What computer-using family didn't have an Uncle Wizzo program?

After digging through the UW program group, I finally found my old online service- Deadbeat Online. I accessed it and scrambled to find the piece of paper that had my old account number and password. Once upon the time I used to remember a dozen online accounts and passwords and could recite them backwards in my sleep.

"I got mail," or so DBL told me through my old speakers. Boy did I ever! Forty letters, all from the system operators wondering where I was. How come I didn't come back? Did I forget I had paid for a lifetime membership? Of course I paid for a lifetime membership! Golden membership plan with unlimited Internet time and free access between 2-6am every fifth Friday. They even sent me a cute little membership certificate that doubled as a mouse pad. My son later traded that in for one featuring Uncle Wizzo. Of course, by that time I didn't care because I had already lost interest with DBL.

I finished the mail and went straight to the Internet browser. I didn't even bother with DBL's chat boards or the software libraries. They were so sanitized that even the opening of a flower was considered obscene. Once on the Net, I went down my old list of memorized addresses. I was greeted with the same message over and over: "That address is no longer valid." The only Net address left was the one provided by all online services- Uncle Wizzo's Internet Site. Seeing that digitized clown with the frizzy hair and white face made me wish we still had that purple dinosaur around.

I left DBL and shut down the computer. Microbrain Billy didn't want me to exit the program without insulting me with more knock-knock jokes, so I went for the off switch. As the life ebbed from my computer once again, I could almost hear a plea coming from the speakers. "No. Don't go. Please stay...."

A few days later I was doing some business in town when I saw an actual computer store! I used to remember a time when there wasn't a store that didn't have computers or computer programs. Now the only place one can buy a computer or software program is in a toy store. I walked into the old store and instantly the salesman beamed as though I was his salvation. His face fell when I told him I was just looking.

The store had a few computers left for sale- mostly outdated systems with plenty of children's programs. Nearby were shelves of ultra-fast modems collecting as much dust as the computers. What was the use of getting a faster modem if your E-mail was still going to be held for three weeks so it would be screened for offensive content?

The salesman walked up to me and asked me if I had any kids. I told him I had two, but both were now teenagers. He simply sighed and walked back to his little corner to watch television. He knew there was no use trying to sell computer equipment to someone who didn't have little kids.

The software shelves were mostly empty. The tags listed a vast collection of programs the store once offered. Digital movies, combat simulators, digital photography, screen savers, sound effects, communications programs. All were made back when computers were designed for adults, before the government began to regulate software content to protect children. Now the only programs available were Microbrain Billy and the cornucopia of Uncle Wizzo programs. "Uncle Wizzo Rides the Train," "Uncle Wizzo Takes a Plane," "Uncle Wizzo Goes to School," "Uncle Wizzo Learns Math," "Uncle Wizzo Goes Online." Even Microbrain Billy's box couldn't avoid Uncle Wizzo's plastered face when they get the digitized clown's seal of approval- as though they ever needed the Uncle's approval for anything.

I remember reading about what happened to the man who played the real Uncle Wizzo- the one who visited school kids after that purple dinosaur lost it's government funding. The one who started an empire that epitomized electronic values. The one whose likeness now adorns ninety-five percent of all computer programs and Internet sites. I remember reading how his fifth wife found him in bed with his other four wives and how she hacked them all with a chainsaw. I'm told she pleaded insanity, found religion, and now is the chairperson of Uncle Wizzo Incorporated.

As I left the store, I could hear that same voice being whispered as the door closed. "No. Don't go. Please stay..."

Every so often I would hear some politician talk about computers and how despite all the laws and safeguards and regulations that somehow the so-called "electronic information superhighway" is the future of society. I have to laugh when I hear that. Yeah, perhaps it could have been the future- if it wasn't ruined by all those speed bumps.

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