Photos from the Vault

Expert advice from a generation ago: Don’t buy a computer

Terrence Got, the former director of computer information services at Allan Hancock College, said in 1986 that he didn’t keep computers around the house, but they come in handy at work.
Terrence Got, the former director of computer information services at Allan Hancock College, said in 1986 that he didn’t keep computers around the house, but they come in handy at work. Telegram-Tribune

Try to find a computer-free place in 2017.

A 2015 Pew Research Center survey said 68 percent of adults in the United States own a smartphone. Even more — 73 percent — own a laptop or desktop computer. Add in tablets and it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing consumer computers.

A generation ago, having a computer was an expensive option with limited value. I remember taking a high school class with stacks of punch cards.

The breakthrough came when programmers hid the lines of code and overlayed them with a graphical user interface like Windows or Mac and utilized a pointing device like the mouse.

The internet became popular after the creation of the World Wide Web, employing familiar visual conventions of text and pictures on pages.

When Donald Munro wrote this story Aug. 7, 1986, the Telegram-Tribune newspaper used a room-sized mainframe computer similar to the one in the photo, with flickering, green-screened CRT keyboard workstations.

Do you really need a computer? Hancock’s Terrence Got doesn’t think so, and he ought to know

As director of computer information services at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Terrence Got oversees a program that teaches 2,000 students how to use computers.

But when you walk into Got’s home in Arroyo Grande, you won’t find a computer in the place.

“After being around computers all day and for so many years — I myself have never felt there was a need,” said Got. “I cant find any need in the home environment.”

In fact, the mention of home computers draws a response one normally wouldn’t expect from a man who’s made a career in the field of computer science and information systems.

“The only thing I could probably see a need for was figuring my income tax,” a task that can easily be accomplished if a person is organized, he said.

Other than that, he’s afraid that many home computers will become nothing more than expensive word processors, or worse yet, video game machines.

“What typically happens is they can’t find a use for it. I’d venture a guess that three out of five home computers aren’t doing anything.”

It’s all a result of people feeling panicked that they, or their children, won’t be “computer literate” and won’t be able to function in the modern world, he said. That feeling is exacerbated by hard-sell campaigns by computer companies warning parents that unless they buy home computers, their children will fall behind in school.

“Commercials make the viewer, normally adult parents, feel guilty that if they don’t buy one for their children they’ll be left out in the rain.”

Once the computer is purchased, however, many times parents find they’ve spent a lot of money on a “fancy toy.”

What’s needed is public awareness as to what computers can’t do, as well as what they can do, Got said. If people were more educated, then those big computer companies wouldn’t be so successful in their slick marketing campaigns based on guilt, he said.

Got teaches one class in developing databases at Hancock, and spends the rest of the time overseeing the program. He’s been at the college five years; previously was in charge of developing the computer system at the San Jose Mercury-News.

“What I emphasize in my class is how to develop databases to develop a good delivery system.” A computer is designed to organize information; how it delivers that information is crucial to how efficient it is. “People need to learn what a computer is really good for — organization.”

Another concern Got has regarding computers is people’s belief in their infallibility.

“What happens is that people, for whatever reason, still have this Star Wars mentality. Everyone thinks computers are perfect.”

For example, he tells his classes that he’s not so concerned about nuclear weapons themselves as he is about the computer operators who are responsible for them.

“There is not a computer program on earth that is bug-free,” he said.

At Hancock College, enrollment last fall in many computer classes was down. Got figures that the huge wave of people afraid of being “computer illiterate” may have gone through the education system and demand is leveling off.

Besides, not everyone needs to know how to write computer programs, he said. What people need to know is how to be comfortable with them and, at the same time, realize that not owning one at home doesn’t necessarily mean they’re falling behind the times, he said.

“Once people find out what computers can’t do, they won’t buy one.”