Is Your Computer A Slave Driver?

Are Modern Conveniences Saving Us Time?

Home computers are arguably the most revolutionary invention of the 20th century. Access to the internet has changed how we all gather information, how we entertain ourselves, and for many of us, how we do our jobs and how we learn.

In the early part of the century, science fiction buffs looked forward to a time when we all owned home robots that would make our lives easier and free up much of our time for pleasurable pursuits. So far robots have not caught on, but the home computer has taken on many of the roles that we assumed robots would fill. Computers allow us to bank and shop from home, they simplify our financial calculations, and they allow us to research in an hour what would take days if we had to visit a number of libraries or experts for the same information.

Nevertheless, people are as busy as ever, and many of us seem to spend more hours a week on our computers than there are in traditional workweek. So just how much time do computers save us?

When you think about it, computers have made a lot of things take longer than they used to. Think about shopping. It used to be that a skilled cashier would rapidly type in the price of each item while passing it through the till. With experience, items could be checked through at remarkable speeds, and the only thing that would slow a cashier down would be a missing price sticker.

Then we invented the bar code scanner. It sounds like it should be really quick – an electronic eye recognizes the bar code and the price of the item, along with other pertinent information, is quickly passed to the computerized till. In terms of inventory tracking and product information at the sales point, this system truly is revolutionary. However, actually scanning the items through is almost always slower than typing in the prices. When price tags were used, they were easily located on the top of each item. An experienced cashier could memorize the prices of many common items. The barcode, however, can be placed anywhere and it often takes several seconds for the cashier to locate it on each item.

Then there are the times that the scanner is not working well. Often a single item must be passed numerous times to get a price. The cashier has the option of typing in the bar code directly, but it is remarkable to witness the lengths to which some of them will go to avoid this simple solution. Every cashier has their own little trick to make a stubborn code scan. Some begin by expertly spraying down and washing the scanner glass, while others will rub their fingers or a coin over the barcode to make certain it is smooth. I have seen a cashier actually take a roll of tape out of her till, and lay a piece over a hard-to-read barcode to get it to scan [It did not work, but she swore to me that it often did]. Some will try to scan the item over and over, turning and twisting it to get a better angle, until you are ready to grab it out of their hands and type the number in yourself.

Only when all else fails, will they resort to typing that number in by hand as they are still assured that having the computer do the job is the most efficient way.

We are so accustomed to scanners now that we hardly notice how much slower they are. I noticed a couple of years ago, when I started shopping at the Chinese grocery in my neighborhood. They don’t have scanners – and they have only one cashier. This highly skilled Chinese woman has memorized the prices of over half the items in the store, and she never forgets the code for a single item of produce. She can easily pass an order through her till at twice the speed of a scanner equipped cashier.

Cashiers are not the only ones who are slowed due to computers. Bank tellers now take longer because they have to scan your bankcard before they can access your account, and they have to pass through many security screens before completing any transaction. Gas jockeys seem to have it easier, as they can now program in how much gas they want to pour and serve another customer while your tank is filling, but you end up being there longer as you wait for the attendant to return and take your money. Self-serve is now the only way to go.

And what of home users? I can count so many ways that my computer has simplified my life. I can buy anything from anywhere at anytime, and tools like word processors and spreadsheets have simplified both my work and studies immeasurably. However, my computer has brought with it many new tasks, and much time is wasted in small increments that are starting to add up in my life.

I run Windows, and Microsoft’s Office and Email applications. Due to security risks, these all must be updated very frequently. I check at least once a week. Once they are installed, I have to shut down and restart my computer at least once. Minutes tick away.

My virus checker has to update all the time too. If there are a number of major updates released at the same time, they must be installed separately, with a reboot in between each. More minutes are lost.

And then there is the time I must spend every month or so to go through my files and get rid of all the garbage I don’t need. Often software begins to experience errors, and it must be removed from the system and reinstalled. In fact, if you try to get support for most software applications, this is often the first remedy they suggest. It can be very time consuming. At least once a year I end up with a corrupt windows file, and end up having to back up all of my data (a 2 day job), format my hard drive, and reinstall my whole system. Last month I experienced my first virus, and an entire day was wasted on clearing my system and restoring damaged files.
I think I now spend more hours maintaining my computer and its files than the technology can possibly be saving me, but I still use it for everything.

I run to my computer when I have a great idea for my novel, or an assignment I’m working on. Quickly as I can, I start up Word to jot down my inspiration. But Word is not fast to load, and often I find myself tapping my fingers impatiently while I wait for it to be ready for my input. I really should just write it down on a notepad – but then I am assured of losing that note before I am able to use it. Also, I’m embarrassed to say that I have mostly lost the skill of writing by hand. I pity the tutors who have to read my hand-written essays from examinations. I can’t even read them. I’m praying for the day they give me a terminal to type my essay into.

For those times I can’t wait to write something down, I have Post-It Notes software on my computer’s desktop [I had to give up traditional sticky notes, as I never see them unless they are stuck to my computer, and I use so many that my monitor is quickly obscured by them]. Now I just click an icon and a familiar little yellow note pops up on the screen, ready for my input. Instant gratification. When my screen becomes too cluttered with them, I can minimize them into little quarter-inch squares, and colour code them by topic. Now my desktop looks like someone sneezed confetti on it, and I have to go through dozens of notes to find the one I want.

It’s not that I have too many things going on, it’s that I use my computer for everything – work, school, finances, entertainment, research, hobbies, to store photographs, music, and videos, to watch DVDs, etc., etc.- and now all my household notes are in one place. It sounds convenient, but it’s not. When everything is in one place it is hard to lose, but also hard to isolate from all the other stuff that is stored there. Is this really convenient? And if not, how do I go back to the way things were before? Like a cashier trained on a scanner-equipped till, I’m not sure I recall how to do most things manually any more. I still curse out those cashiers though. I guess we are all in the same boat, and none of us much likes it.

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.