Poppy Sits Down at the Keyboard


April 30, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.-- We are entering one of those dangerous moments in our country's history. I am not talking about the mounting deficit or the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. The scariest fact of the hour is that the commander-in-chief of the United States of America is about to boot up and log-on to the computer world.

Poppy at the keyboard? A mouse in the House? Mr. Bush as a beginner in BASIC? George and the user-friendly software? Do I see another children's book in the making or a horror story?

Just a few weeks ago, urged on by the First Lady and her Magical Lap Top, the president vowed to end his computer illiteracy. He declared in a no-takies-back public statement that ''no one's ever too old to learn.''

So, on Wednesday morning he began, undeterred by the fact that his tutor didn't show up. The president turned the computer on, pushed a button, gave it a command -- gulp -- and declared it ''fun.'' Having pressed Execute, he joshed, ''I was worried what might happen up there.'' He was worried?

It seems to me that there are only two things to be concerned about when the leader of the Western World starts trying to interface with his new computer: (1.) He won't learn. (2.) He will.

The number of PCs that have been bought and abandoned in the past decade slightly exceeds the number of yogurt makers. This is because the first lessons in computerese are like total-immersion language classes in Hungarian. The language barrier between those who know and those who would learn remains enormous.

In the absence of a human tutor, the president would be left, like the rest of us, with a user-hostile instruction manual. The majority of these texts include in their welcoming remarks such questions as:''Do you have an IBM Binary Synchronous Communications Adapter installed in your system?'' Giving these texts to the computer illiterate, is like giving a how-to-read instruction book to someone who doesn't know the alphabet.

Do we need a president who comes out of this experience with a microchip on his shoulder? He might stop worrying about the megabytes Japan is chomping out of our economy and go back to pushing pencils.

What if, on the other hand, George begins to learn. Remember back to those wonderful yesteryears of Computer I? Excuse me while I push the Save button.

It is one thing to lose a day's work if you're a reporter. It's quite another to accidentally delete the Secret Service. It's one thing to push the wrong button and wipe out your company's sales records. It's quite another to push the wrong button and wipe out Bulgaria. And you were worried about the red phone.

Of course, computers are almost error-proof these days. Which is why the word ''glitch'' has its origins in computer-speak.

If the president becomes accomplished at the keyboard, he may spend his days --ing off his famed personal notes through the electronic mail. If however, he becomes a master, he might enter the advanced computer space of ''virtual reality.'' Washington is already out-of-touch with the country; the horror show begins at the edge of computer Fantasyland.

There is also the business of security. Last year, an Esquire magazine writer followed some teen-age hackers as they broke into the White House computer system. It was a piece of cake. Imagine, what Kitty Kelley could do with that sort of access.

I for one hope that the new kid on line doesn't choose Poppy as his password. I also hope that he doesn't choose something so obscure that he'll stand there in the middle of an international crisis trying to remember whether it was LQ2VR or PNB8Y.

Finally, as George Herbert Walker Bush joins the community of the computer literate, we should all quake a bit about accountability. The computer has become the scapegoat of our era. These days, the dog doesn't eat the homework; the computer does. The billing clerk doesn't lose your check; the computer does. Wall Street doesn't crash; the computer does. When his handy new toy kicks on, the presidential motto may have to change from ''The Buck Stops Here'' to ''The Computer Did It.''

Lesson one, Mr. President: Blame the user, not the computer. Don't confuse Nintendo with the Pentagon's war games. And when you leave the office at night, sir, remember to log off.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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