Machines – The Cybernetic Connection

Sidekicks and companions on the path of success

GRASSHOPPER NOTE: The following chapter (and indeed, this entire book) was written by Angus in the early 90’s. This was before the advent of mass communications on the Internet, and before the general population had access to email. This was a time before the PowerPC, Windows95, the Apple/NeXT merger, or Microsoft’s attempt at dominating the Internet. But much of what is said about hardware usage is still relevant.

The true cyborg never takes it upon himself to do everything by hand. There are numerous devices out there that help take the burden of mundane and repetitious activities off us, and allow us the freedom to enjoy life, and more time and energy to minister to the tasks that really need our attentions.

Find the time you need to live the life you want.

To some readers, the emphasis on electronic technology in this chapter may seem over-indulgent. Yet this technology is omnipresent in the modern world. To diminish its importance would be skirting the issue. The fact is, the computer may well be the most important addition to human life in the history of humankind. No other tool provides us with so much power, because no other tool was designed to manage that most important resource of all: Information.

When the personal computer revolution got under way in the late seventies, few people took heed. In fact, even IBM ignored the personal computer market, thinking it a fad that would quickly pass. The IBM PC was virtually the last hurried entry into the personal computer market. Still other companies may have missed the train altogether. Not until the mid-eighties did the majority of people realise that they not only should start finding out what all the fuss was about, but suddenly knowledge of the new phenomenon was vital to their functioning in society and business. Now, in the early nineties, we find the personal computer as much a household item as a microwave oven. People spend a lot of time, money and energy on books, tapes and lessons trying to catch up on the past decade of technological advancement. Ten years ago, to function in business, it may have been enough to know how to type. Now, almost everyone is assumed to be capable of using Windows(r), Lotus(r), or whatever the latest software revolution is. Better to have started early before the tide swept one over and made one obsolete.

Computer technology is here to stay. You should make yourself comfortable in integrating your life with it. I totally believe that the next major trend in computer awareness has to do with telecommunications, databases, and information retrieval. Even as you read this book, more and more people are learning how to use the new technology of information networks. A simple rule of thumb to measure your pace with the technology is to ask yourself just how alien the “other world” seems to you. Do you experience resistance within, when confronted with the new medium? Are you intimidated by the enormity and seemingly-overwhelming complexity of it all? Yet, would you prefer to be forced to understand it by way of job requirement (at a later time when everyone else already knows how to use it), or get into the action now and gain the tactical advantage of its benefits? The more fearful and resistant you are of the technology, the more pressing is the need for you to learn it.

Imagine how a person would be able to survive in the world if he refused to learn how to use telephones, fax machines, or even the television. Computers intertwined with life is already a reality; the need to understand information retrieval and telecommunications will be inevitable. The bright side of it all is that once you have made your way into the “electronic village” you will wonder how you ever got along without it. Should you so wish, simply balance out your immersion in the technology with opposing interests (e.g., reading great novels, or socializing, when your objectives have been achieved). Although I too prefer a life less dependent on the new machines, lamenting about the “complexity” and “coldness” of it all will get one nowhere in the modern world. Naivete is a poor substitution for knowledge and skill.

Without further preamble, let us examine how machines can enhance our lives in a cybernetic connection. One of the key functions of a good cybernetic device is to help us manage our lives. For this important job, we turn to the mighty organizers.

Organizers – Our Personal Secretaries

Extended memory functions for our human brains

There are basically two types of organizers we can use. One made of paper, and one made of metal and plastic. The paper organizers come in the form of the “FiloFax” booklets, with special formatted pages for the various categories of information we need to keep track of. They are relatively inexpensive, and available in many stationery supply stores. On the other side of the coin are the electronic organizers, pioneered most probably by the wonderful Sharp “Wizard” units, and now come in an array of models by many other manufacturers.

Any organizer, whether paper or electronic, must do the following things:

  • Record our daily schedules
  • Maintain our telephone and address list
  • Provide various levels of overview of our schedule to allow us to see projects and their due dates in the proper perspective
  • Hold bits of information that are important yet prone to be lost if not properly filed away
  • Let us observe our past, present, and future activities in order to see the direction in which we are going

Of the above functions, the most important one is keeping track of our schedules, or agenda. Recall that I use the term “schedule” not to mean a static structure that constrains our actions. Rather, I use the term to mean the overall “plan” in which we are free to make changes and adjust to the ever-changing environment and personal demands.

For our purposes, I highly recommend an electronic organizer. The greatest advantage of it over a paper one is the speed at which data can be accessed and manipulated. For example, if I wanted to find a particular phone number, I can search the electronic database and come up with the result in a few seconds. A paper phone book might take considerably longer, and entries may not be in true alphabetical order. In fact, with my Sharp Wizard, I could reverse the process, and find the name that a certain number belongs to. This is especially useful for checking on Caller-ID numbers (see Chapter Four). With a paper organizer, this could take a long, long time. With regards to dates and times, if I had to find out the exact date when a particular assignment is due on, I simply type in several characters of the assignment, and find the date, using the electronic search function. With a paper organizer, I would have to flip through each page on the datebook, and locate by eye the assignment.

Another benefit that the electronic organizer – EO – has over the paper organizer – PO – is that I can invoke an overview of my schedule by daily activities, weekly activities, monthly activities, and perhaps even an annual summary. These are available on demand, in seconds. It would be nearly impossible to achieve with a PO. I would have to flip through the datebook to get an idea of what is happening in the vicinity of a certain date I’m interested in, and then try to remember what is happening the week after that, or before that, or what is going on next month, and then forget what I had wanted to do all this for in the first place! The benefit of the EO’s summary function is indispensable when encountering new demands. For example, I would enter in all the assignment due dates for certain projects throughout the year, when school starts. When I encounter a new project, I could look at how all my other projects and events are organized, and figure out when would be the most appropriate time for me to attend to the new project. The EO also allows me to plan ahead for my activities and budget my time for each task. Every morning, when I wake up, I check my daily listing of events, and then I check my weekly summaries Every weekend, I check on the month’s listings, and examine what future months will bring. All of this in 30-seconds. Because the EO is so easy and quick to use, I am encouraged to check and recheck everything. This way, I would have a constantly updated subconscious sense of where I am in my life, and how everything is coming along. If I had to use a PO, I would probably not be as eager to examine my schedules so frequently.

Electronic organizers also have the added ability to accommodate special “program cards.” Granted, not all EO’s have this function. Nevertheless, when shopping for an EO, it is something to be kept in mind. Program cards run the gamut from electronic dictionaries, to spreadsheet programs, to language translators. Electronic dictionaries, in particular, are very helpful in learning new words, and understanding their correct usage. A lot of people put off looking up new words because of the inconvenience associated with flipping through a paper dictionary. The electronic dictionary saves us from this inconvenience. In addition, it allows us to double-check the spelling of words we are unsure of. Finally, the vast selection of applications cards out there virtually guarantee that many tasks we have to do will be conveniently automated.

Because there are so many organizers out there by so many different companies, and because the technology is changing every day, I cannot safely recommend any particular brand or model. The student or executive shopping for one would be well served by research, and trying out different units. Keep in mind also the options and peripherals available for the unit, and the possibility of future expansion (such as in memory capacity). One important option to look at is the availability of a cable or software that allows the organizer to communicate with a personal computer. This “computer-link” will make your EO a portable version of your computer’s data. Some EO’s include word-processing programs, and you could then use this portable mini-word-processor to edit essays or reports that you normally do on your home computer. Advanced EO’s even have modem and faxing capabilities, expanding yet more of your reach as a user in the task of managing information and data. My own unit is a Sharp IQ-8200, but there is already a new 9000-series even as I write this sentence.

Regardless of your choice for an EO or PO, make sure you learn how to use them. PO’s generally need little, if any, instruction. They are simply booklets in which you write. There are, however, some very ingenious formatted pages that make better use of this kind of medium. On the other hand, the EO’s usually need some time getting used to. The biggest complaint that beginning user of EO’s have is that they are not as quick entering data into the EO’s as they are writing something down on a PO. This will change with practice and use. Soon you may find – as I did – that entering and retrieving data on an EO is much quicker and more efficient than fumbling around with a paper organizer and pen. My sister had an EO once, but she refused to use it, swearing by her FiloFax. To this day, she still uses the FiloFax. She says she likes reading handwritten words on real paper, not a pattern of dots on an screen. To each his or her own, I guess.

Recently, however, Apple Computer released their hand-held Newton, a “personal digital assistant.” The Newton PowerPad is a computer organizer unit that can recognize handwriting. Thus, information does not need to be typed in. Handwriting, on the Newton screen, is translated into the corresponding characters via optical character recognition (OCR) technology. Therefore, the best of both the worlds of handwriting convenience, and computerized information management, is now available. Unfortunately, the Newton is rather high-priced, and costs just under $900 at the time of this writing. With any type of organizer, you must make a commitment to use it. It would serve no purpose if you still try to keep everything in your head. By putting your information into the organizer, you are freeing up your mental energies that are used up when you try to keep everything memorized and try to juggle all the bits of information in a coherent and useful manner. Again, we are minimizing our multi-tasking.

One additional point that needs to be emphasized: You must keep a backup of all your data. How often you do this depends on the priority of the data and the rate you change your data. The more you do, and the more the organizer has to keep track of, the more frequently you should backup. A general rule of thumb is to backup once every two weeks. I backup my organizer on a weekly basic. With PO’s, backing up becomes a bit difficult, but the quickest way is to photocopy the pages. With an EO, you can either send the information to your home computer as a file, or print it out and put the hardcopy in a safe place. Some units also allow you to backup your data onto memory cards, which can be removed or inserted much the same way a home computer uses floppy disks.