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Tech Beyond the QRR

By Darshak M. Sanghavi

LAST month, I gave in to the march of technology and purchased a Macintosh computer to assist my productivity.

I'll admit it. I loved buying the new computer. While unpacking the mouse, the terminal, and all the new gadgets, I felt so playful. Deep down in me, I thought, there's a real computer geek trying to break out. I had even just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence. I was ready to become one with my productivity tool.

Until last week.

On Wednesday, an ominous sound razzed the terminal while I was typing a letter. And then a bomb appeared with a message, saying simply, "Sorry, a system error occured. ID=55."

Hhhhhmmmmm. I calmly restarted the machine, assuming that some advanced self-correcting mechanism would kick in. Negative. This time, I was confronted with a dark screen with a small Macintosh in the center with X's instead of eyes, like a thrashed Loony-Tunes cartoon.

I was witnessing the dreaded "Sad Macintosh."

I quickly balanced ying and yang and turned to my trusty owner's manual. Out of more than 250 pages in the manual, a grand total of two paragraphs dealt with error messages.

I quote the more technical passages: "The error codes presented in the dialogue box are very general and may not be very helpful in discovering the problem...See your dealer."

I gave Mac one final chance. "Sorry.........," he began to report, but I flipped the switch and repowered just to torture him.

I thought hard. I drew a blank. I gave Mac the finger.

WHAT is the moral of this story? In the ongoing quest to achieve "user-friendliness," computer makers such as Apple have given us simplicity in place of comprehension. Although smiley faces, frowning faces, and cutesy language like "mouse" help people overcome their initial jitters with machines, manufacturers won't allow users to understand anything remotely technical. Macintoshes are so easy to use because we have no idea how they work.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for someone like me who grew up with legos, erector sets, tinkertoys and building blocks. These toys represented concrete creativity, encouraging experimentation with different forms and imaginary functions.

Unfortunately, this naive instinct to probe mechanics becomes replaced by a jaded acceptance of its ubiquitous presence. An example of this appears in Bloom County, where Oliver Wendell Jones's Banana 2000 computer (which looks suspiciously like a Macintosh) strives to achieve simple respect, even from a young boy. While Oliver engages in computer pirating fantasies with the Banana, he feels no remorse in trashing his friend for a new model. Technology and young Oliver maintain a merely professional relationship.

I was hoping that I would develop a more personal understanding of machines at college. But Harvard has done little to make me really care about technology.

The Quantitative Reasoning Requirement (QRR) simply forces the computer illiterates to cram and scram. And although the Core Curriculum takes painstalking measures to help students appreciate the aesthetic of thought, it directs little effort towards the aesthetics of modern technology.

I want to know why a television, radio, telephone network, computer and even turbo-cooled engine work. I want to know about cars, printing presses, eraseable ink and microwave ovens. I want to know how people build skyscrapers.

I don't want to "give in to the march of technology." I want to join the parade!

THERE is a footnote to my escapade with the Macintosh. I turned it upside down and it worked.

For about 2 minutes.

So much for curiosity. I didn't feel like dealing with it, so two days ago I "saw my dealer."

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