What Have Computers Ever Done For You?


Monday, 9.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

…if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in – Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

If you had to give a talk about how computers have changed your life, what would you say?

First of all, have they changed it much at all?

For example, what difference is there between writing in copperplate in an exercise book and typing out words on a keyboard?

Socrates didn’t like the idea of writing at all – he worried that once words were written down they kept telling you the same things forever.

The thing is that as people we don’t take the same meaning from the same words – we construct meaning around what we read.

Now, since I’m not sure what the answer to my question happens to be it makes sense to start with a diagram.

If you haven’t come across the idea of thinking maps – they are a set of graphical organisers used in school to help students explore ideas and concepts.

One of them happens to be a circle map – something used in a manner akin to brainstorming and shown in the picture above.

When I think of computers I remember the ways in which I use them.

The easiest memory is using them for computing – doing sums with large numbers, calculating stuff and creating programs to repeat or control things.

I suppose that would fall under the general heading of automation.

The other memory that comes to almost everyone is using them, or watching someone use them, for gaming.

For amusement and these years to share material and entertain others. For a social purpose.

Then there are tools that help us visualise and draw and simulate things – from magazine design to 3-D models used by architects.

All that is creative work.

And then, going round the circle, there is the way in which computers help us store much more data, link between them and expand what we can look at beyond the confines of a single page or book.

It liberates us from systems like index cards and sets of encyclopedias.

Then again, do we find that we are actually automating more things, getting better at socialising, being more creative and find ourselves liberated from the drudgery of day to day work.

Or has society evolved, turning us from hunters to farmers and now to the pinnacle of existence – as clerks.

As someone said – whose quote I cannot find.

Ironic, given the links and search engines we have today.

The point about change, I suppose, is this.

Are you doing the same thing differently?

Or are you doing things you couldn’t do before.

For example, writing hasn’t changed. Nor has reading. Neither has communication, it’s perhaps become faster but although we talk more, maybe we say less.

But there are things that truly expand our capabilities.

In each of the four areas that have emerged from the circle map you’ll find examples where you are doing things you couldn’t do without computers.

Maybe that’s why there is a belated realisation that digital literacy matters.

You can do the same things faster and become obsolete or do new things and stay relevant.

The next evolutionary step, in that case, is to move from being a clerk to being a programmer.

Hunter, farmer, clerk, programmer.


Karthik Suresh

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