It's Time for a 'Wetware' Rebellion

Computer owners are getting less service than ever from manufacturers, and advertisers eye their home screens as the next frontier beyond radio and television

TO the computer trade, you and I are ''wetware.'' In order of priorities, we come fourth after ''hardware'' and ''software'' - and ''adware.''

In the lingo of the industry, wetware is us - the human beings who make up the market for computer technology. Wetware is clearly a pejorative term, reflective of an attitude in which change, regardless of its wear and tear on flesh and blood, is a fruitful commodity. User-friendliness is but a memory of a kinder, gentler era.

Premiums are placed less on need than on newness and ''moreness'' - swifter chips, advanced options, software demanding ever larger memory, galloping orders of complexity, and, of course, profits. The satirical slogan ''days ahead of its time'' is no longer funny. Pleas of the wetware are ignored. Let us master what you've sold us before you ''improve'' it.

Zero-defects as a production credo has been replaced by the stampede to market. Equipment and software ''kluges'' are seen as a normal hazard of doing business. If a ''com port'' doesn't work in a new machine, or the left channel of the keyboard or multimedia player is inoperative, the wetware will simply have to summon UPS and ship it back. Software is released with the bugs still in it. The wetware can always get a remote ''upgrade'' from the seller by ''ftp'' (which has nothing to do with flowers by wire), assuming they know how to ftp. (The acronym, incidentally, means ''file transfer protocol,'' a way of moving files between computers on the Internet.)

Manuals, barely scrutable by tradition, become less comprehensible still. Some come unbound, with binder holes unpunched. Free 800 lines to connect wetware to technical support have been shut down as needless overhead. A firewall of voicemail and e-mail and faxmail has been interposed between wetware and emergency first aid. Help desks need help and rarely phone back. The balky installation of an ISDN digital data-voice line at my home brought the installer back so often that the dogs came to view him, tails wagging, as a member of the family.

Configuration procedures require black belts and grand masters. I must deep-six my screen-saver program because it sends the entire array into a spasm. I commit a technical gaffe with my printer, and the screen jolts me, flashing: ''FATAL ERROR!'' On the World Wide Web, I receive such inexplicable messages as: ''Second instance of an exe with multiple writable data segments.'' How can you respond when you can't recall the first instance?

Back-up procedures for hard disks require as many as 60 diskettes. A new piece of equipment has been devised - a tape backup machine costing more than $500. Upon installation, my screen signals that there's been a data blockage of some undecipherable sort. The manual is simply of no use. The manufacturer is in Colorado, a long-distance call. An automated voice replicator tells me that a human being will be available in an hour, if I care to hang on - while AT&T keeps toting up the phone bill. The compan y never responds to e-mail.

The local retailer says that he'll send a techie right over - at $65 an hour. I recruit a young computer whiz at $25. After four intensive hours of trial and error, he discovers the kluge, a minute error in the parallel port address. There's no way I could have found it myself. What will poor people do? An ever more meaningful question.

Beyond hardware and software issues is the matter of purpose. Alaina Kanfer, a social scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, Ill., where young coders devised MOSAIC, the first web interface, has surveyed wetware. She finds they were at first drawn to long-distance computing by the novelty of browsing, then stayed to experience the utility and ease of e-mail, and now increasingly use the Internet and the Web for information and research - from the latest satellite wea ther maps and forecasts to the Statistical Abstract of the United States.

Advertisers see it quite differently than do the wetware. Sugarplums dance in their heads, dreams of vast profits and power - the lures that brought sponsors in droves first to radio, then television.

Edwin L. Artzt, the outgoing chairman of Procter & Gamble, the soapmaker that is the largest spender of ad dollars in electronic media, told a conference of fellow advertisers that the challenge of new media is, bluntly, control and access. On one-way television, making soap operas as ad carriers was one thing. Exploiting the interactive Internet is another.

''As long as we were guaranteed virtually unlimited access to the vast majority of people's homes,'' he told representatives of NBC and GM and others, ''we had no reason to be concerned about access to programming. Now we do.... Content is king.... We have to develop it, we have to share in its ownership, and we have to market it through the channels'' that are ''most effective and most efficient.''

Nielsen and Arbitron TV-ratings services are now devising tools to measure Internet users, the better to help the commercial culture manipulate content to dominate new media. The history of radio and television in America will repeat itself, unless citizens become conscious and democratically active, defining our needs on-line both to marketmakers and legislatures, and reserving a substantial public parkland in cyberspace.

Otherwise, we will have to be content with what we're given.

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