Home computers are expected to help people. Chris Reynolds has reservations
MANY YOUNGSTERS have home computers because they, or their parents, feel that owning such a computer will help them in their careers. As a university lecturer responsible for training future computer professionals, I have my doubts. Let me explain.
In the last 30 years the uses of computers as part of practical working information systems have mushroomed. For most of that time there has been a desperate shortage of suitably-experienced staff. Salaries rocketed as companies bid to obtain employees with the greatest length of experience, apparently regardless of quality. The whole was surrounded with the prestige of being at the forefront of modern technology, at least in the eyes of one's neighbours.
Much of the gloss has now been shed. There is, of course, still a shortage of good computer professionals but the incompetent now find it almost impossible to climb on the bandwagon, and salaries are no longer so wildly out of line with other occupations. One no longer hears people boasting that they know someone who knows someone who works with computers. In fact, it seems likely that in five years having a computer in the house will be socially as significant as is owning a digital watch today. When acne-embarrassed schoolboys with home computers are ten-a-penny the simple ability to program will have no value in the job market.
|'The pressure will be on for more flexible and easier-to-use systems'|
Those changes will have a major effect on the structure of the computer profession. The need for highly-skilled people to work on research and development projects in the computer industry will continue. The majority of existing professionals work for companies which use computers as tools to help the company business and it is in that area that the biggest changes will take place. The pressure will be for more flexible and easier-to-use systems with the minimum of fuss.
A prime requirement will be for staff able to communicate with other people, verbally and in writing, with the minimum of jargon. Knowledge of management, economics and psychology, and the design of systems are next on the list. A good understanding of what a computer can reasonably be expected to do is of far greater importance than the ability to PEEK and POKE on a particular make of microcomputer.
Universities already have moved in that direction and introduced courses which anticipate that future need. For instance, Brunel University has a Systems and Information Management course which has been running for five years and which has attracted 28 good students this year, compared to 22 on its more conventional course. Because it is felt that breadth of experience is important, students who do not have A levels in computer science and mathematics are preferred to those who have already specialised narrowly with double mathematics and computer science.
Many of the leading 21st century computer professionals are now at school and in the light of the foregoing comments, it is useful to speculate what they are doing now. We can be certain that they will be well-acquainted with modern electronics technology. Digital watches and pocket calculators will be taken for granted. Their parents will have television sets with teletext and a variety of electronic games. As soon as they are old enough they will use autobanks and credit cards to buy things such as electronic organs. Even if they never saw a general-purpose computer they would take for granted keys to be pressed, video displays, and automatic information processing.
While at school they will almost certainly have been given a computer appreciation course and may have had computer-aided instruction. Most will have taken O and A level computer science. That will not be because this is necessary for their careers but because the education system encourages early specialisation.
Socially, most of them will be good mixers. They are therefore likely to be found in the Boy Scouts, the school band or the local cricket team.
One thing not mentioned is ownership of a home computer. The reason is that the evidence at Brunel suggests that in many cases a private micro can have an adverse effect on student studies and sometimes on employment prospects.
There are a number of reasons. The first is that to understand and use a language well, you have to be able to think in that language, be it French, Arabic, Pascal or Cobol. Students who have written a large number of programs in a single language, often on a single machine, have difficulty in transferring to other languages.
Gerald Weinberg, in his book The Psychology of Computer Programming, showed how easy it was to guess a student's former language by the stylistic errors he makes in learning a new language. Ten years later the problem is much the same. Most novice students learn rapidly the essentials of modern programming concepts, such as block structuring and recursion.
Students who have extensive experience in old-fashioned languages which lack those features often insist on using more powerful high-level languages as if the newer features did not exist. That is apparently because they find it easier to write longer, inelegant programs than to learn something new.
|'The big danger seems to be the bright but socially-gauche adolescent'|
The second problem is that writing programs and playing games on a home computer is most entertaining. The ability to use a home computer is, however, of little relevance to any but the most junior jobs in the computer field. Most adults would discourage a child from wanting to become a television news reader simply because he had built a crystal radio at the age of eleven. Unfortunately computers are so new, and so mysterious to many adults, that most teachers and parents are not sufficiently knowledgeable to recognise a fun hobby as just that and, as a result, they encourage children to attempt to follow a career path for which they may be almost totally unsuited.
The big danger seems to be the bright but socially-gauche adolescent. He finds the school computer more friendly than his school-mates and develops an interest rapidly. A home computer is bought by enthusiastic parents to encourage him in what is certain to be a wonderful career in this marvellous technology. He is delighted to be allowed to spend many hours every evening enjoying himself in the privacy of his room. Socially, he finds he can boast about his wonderful programs which look most impressive, with flashing screens and perhaps even sound effects.
Because of all this praise and the absence of anyone who can assess the quality of his work properly, he soon becomes convinced that he is a computer genius and spends even more time at the keyboard. He has become a code junkie who craves for his two-hours-a-day session at the keyboard.
In fact, the idea of code junkies is not new. In the last decade we have had several who have become addicted to the university computer. From experience we know that almost all such students fail the course. They prove to be almost unemployable because of their inability to get on well with people, and because of a marked reluctance to work with, rather than play with, computers.
Last year, for the first time, we had the problem of new undergraduates who were already code junkies before they arrived. This year the number of students who have home computers on arrival has more than doubled and it is suspected that many of them will prove to be junkies.
It has been said that home computers and computer games will help to keep the future unemployed occupied in an enjoyable manner. That may well be true in the long term, when society has become adjusted to the new technology, In the short term there is a danger that the majority of the unemployed who play such games will be code junkies who caught the bug during a vulnerable period of adolescence.
Dr Chris Reynolds is reader in computer science at Brunel University. He organises the computer science teaching for first-year mathematics computer science students. He also researches improved systems for the man-computer interface.
A response to this article appeared in Futurology in issue 12.