One expert's cry for some healthy skepticism about computers
Wilton, N.H. — Arthur Fink has been called a ''voice sounding in the computer wilderness.'' His alarum: Computers are becoming an end in themselves, instead of a means to help people solve problems.
He has even uttered what some might term heresy in the latter part of the 20 th century: There may be some problems that silicon chips cannot, or should not, solve.
Mr. Fink, a computer consultant who works from his home in this southern New Hampshire town, says he's no modern-day Luddite, referring to the early 19 th-century workers in Britain who set about smashing the machines of the nascent Industrial Revolution.
''I suppose if I whacked a computer terminal with an ax, I could get a lot of quick publicity,'' he says with a smile. But, he adds, that would only distort his message.
What disturbs him, he says, are some current trends, such as the limited way in which ''computer literacy'' is being defined.
To equate computer literacy with programming ability, he says, is like confusing regular literacy with penmanship.
Back when films were first being touted as a valuable educational tool there were calls for ''film literacy,'' he says.
''Courses were therefore proposed to teach teachers how to thread projectors.
''Learning this technique was surely helpful, but it had nothing to do with learning about the medium of film.
''Computer literacy needs to begin with a healthy skepticism of these machines,'' he says. ''Only then are you ready to sit down in front of them and start playing with them and using them.''
A person who is truly computer-literate, he says, ''should know how to put the computer in its place, to use it as a tool in as creative and tasteful a manner as possible, and to leave it behind when it cannot contribute.''
Actually, Fink, who did his graduate work in computer science at Harvard University, says he has nothing against computers.
''I regularly work with some of IBM's largest,'' he says. ''Businesses can benefit by them and they can be valuable in schools in certain ways.''
But the current fascination with computers, says Fink, can blind even hardheaded businessmen. As part of a consulting team, he once was asked to help develop a system to track parts in a small factory.
''It didn't take long for us to find the real problem: Shipping clerks were fetching parts through an open door into the receiving area, rather than going to the parts counter where forms had to be filled out.'' But when the company learned this, it still insisted on becoming ''computerized.''
In cases such as this, he says, ''the computer system becomes an end in itself. . . .''
Too often, Fink says, the output of computers is being ''deified.'' A figure printed by a computer ''gets a certain 'aura' about it,'' he observes. The employee who wants to try something that conflicts with the computer ''finds it doubly difficult to win approval because he's going over the head of the computer.''
Fink says one association of computer users is trying to combat the myth of computer infallibility by vowing not to use the terms ''the computer did'' or ''the computer said.''
''Really,'' says Fink, ''it should be 'the report, based on the assumptions fed in by the programmers, indicates. . . .' ''
Even computer professionals can become dazzled by their machines, he says. They may become so caught up in debugging a program that they fail to ask the real questions, such as: Will the end result truly answer the needs of the user?
''We're not teaching people to ask those deeper questions,'' he says. At a 1980 seminar he conducted for computer programmers he found that most ''didn't believe in the data they were processing'' - that is, they seriously doubted either the quality or completeness of the results of their work. At the same time, he says, they all ''loved their programs.''
''I think a programmer addressing these issues can build better information systems,'' says Fink.
As for the home computers and video games popping up in dens and living rooms across the country, Fink, who owns neither, remains unimpressed.
''The need for a computer to do such things as balance a checkbook is a myth, '' he says. ''Its only possible use in a typical home right now is word processing.'' He adds that ''video games have nothing to do with programming,'' except perhaps that both can be addictive. ''I find most video games are at best mindless,'' he says.