Your Computer, Magic? Or Just a Tool?

Couple with computer

Your Computer is a Great Tool

We baby boomers remember when computers were a new thing. Wow! So and so has a new Apple II! Let’s go play!  That computer was cool. You could do anything with it. You could type something and then move it to another place in the document just by pasting it there. You could even erase what you wrote without having to put in a new piece of paper or use some white liquid stuff (White Out, Tipex, or whatever you call it where you live) to fix the mistake. What a mess that was.  But mainly you used it for games. It was cool.

As computers got better, they even told you if you were spelling things right. Wow this was fun, no more dictionaries, no more thinking, just work away and the computer does it all for you. Just like magic!

It’s not Magic, It’s Just a Tool

Maybe we didn’t like going to the dictionary all the time to look up the word, but it helped us write better. The dictionary didn’t spell for us, it was just a tool to help us spell better. Tools are like that. Do you like to build things? Well could you connect two things together without a hammer and nails? No, not really. Did the hammer build that house for you? No, you did! The hammer was just one tool in a set of tools that you used.

Do you like to bake cakes? Could you bake a cake without a measuring cup and a spatula? Maybe. But it is much easier to use  these tools to bake your cake. Did the measuring cup and spatula bake your cake for you? Did the oven? No, you did!

We know exactly what to do with all these tools and we use them to create what we want.

What do You Want to Do?

Do you know what it is that makes you think “I want to use the computer right now?” I mean, do you turn it on just so you can hear all the start-up noises and then sit and stare at it?  Probably not. You probably want to do something. Maybe you need to write a letter, update your resume, check your bank account, or just read the news. These are just a few things everyday people, including us boomers, do everyday.

But people have been doing these things for years before there were even computers anywhere. I remember when I was growing up (oh no! here I go again), I did all of these things without a computer. Computers were expensive and huge. Only really big companies had them. The idea that one day it would be possible to have a computer sitting on your desk (or lap) at home was unfathomable. But we managed.

So why do we even need the computer at all. Because the computer is a tool. A tool to make all those things easier. Writing a letter with a pencil and paper took time. For some of us, like myself, it was almost impossible. I remember my parents telling me that I need to write thank you notes and my arm hurt just thinking about it. A computer is only a tool to help you carry out everyday tasks, most of which could be done with other tools, too. But like any tool you just have to know how to use it. You can’t just turn it on and expect it to do stuff for you, it’s not magic.

Why do We Think the Computer is Magic?

Computers are easy. Computers are fun. New, even cooler versions come out every year. In the old days, we used typewriters as a tool to help us write. Other than the invention of the electric typewriter, there wasn’t much new about them. They had a keypad and these big “slap things” (not sure what to call them) banged out on the paper. They all did the same thing. OK, there were those IBM Selectric typewriters with the ball thing instead of the “slap things.” They were cool. They even had an automatic erase key (you could erase the last letter you typed or something like that. That was innovation. Those models stayed around with practically no changes for 15 to 20 years.

Now a computer has a screen. It has pictures and links. It’s in color! And it even tells you how to spell. Now all you have to do is just type some words and the computer will make it all look good. You print it later or send it in an email (more magic?) and wow that was easy. Not so fast! You sent out a letter to a company looking for a job. You didn’t get a call back. One day a friend of yours says, “Why did you send that letter with all  of those spelling mistakes?” You look at him and say, “Hey I used the computer, it said it was all right.”

We expect the computer to do all the work for us. But just like the hammer or the spatula, you have to be the one to use the tool. The computer will make things much easier, but it is still up to you to use it.

Know Your Computer’s Limitations and Use it Wisely

Yes, computers have many limitations. In fact they are pretty dumb. They can only do what you tell it to do. They only know what they are told. Let’s go back to that magical spell checker again. You were baffled to find that despite the magic touch you used on your letter, there were still mistakes. What good is a computer if it doesn’t do everything for you, right? What happened was this, the computer knows what it was told. That is, it recognizes words that are in its dictionary. If you use a word that is not in the dictionary, it thinks it is wrong. It might be, it might not be. You need to check the red squiggles to see if they are. Many words have homonyms. Words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Did you mean “summary” or did you mean “summery.” Both are correct spellings, but they mean different things. One is a summary of your article, the other talks about the weather. Your computer doesn’t know the difference and it doesn’t know what you mean.

The good news is that even though you have to do some work to be sure your work is good, the computer makes it much easier. Now you can run the spell check and look at each word that is flagged. You may want to go over it to ensure that you did not mix thinks up. A good trick here is to magnify the text. This doesn’t actually make the text bigger, even though it is bigger on the screen. It’s really  just like putting the text under a magnifying glass so you can see it much better. Proofread your stuff at 150% or even 200% and you can quickly find any errors that you may have made. The computer won’t do it for you, but it will surely make it easier.

But I Don’t Understand how this Thing Works

Do you really need to know exactly how a computer works? No, not really. Unless it is a subject that really interests you, then don’t worry about it. Take another tool that we use every day, the car. Do you really know how the internal combustion engine works. You know that somehow it takes the gas (petrol) and turns it into energy that powers the car. All you really need to know is that when you put your foot on the accelerator pedal, the car goes. If you turn the steering wheel, the car turns in the direction you want it to go. Computers are the same way. Nothing just happens. If you want to erase something there is the delete key. We learn how to use the mouse to select text. We know that text that is selected (in color, after you drag the mouse over it) is the text that will disappear after we hit that delete key. Just like the car, once we learn how to use the computer, we know we can control what we do. We know it’s not magic, but a tool that we use to get things done much faster, easier, and more efficiently.

But Can’t I Just Play Games on My Computer

You sure can, but a computer is much more than just a video game console. It can help you organize your life, find valuable information, and be your central entertainment center. As long as you know that the computer is not going to do things for you, you will have a great relationship with this amazing and fun tool.

Maybe you want to see a series of posts that talk about “Things I use my Computer to do That I Used to use something else for.” For example there could be a post called “I use my Computer to Write Letters, but I Used to Use a Typewriter (or Pencil and Paper),” or “I use my Computer to Listen to Music, but I Used to Use a Stereo.” Or other stuff like that. Let me know if you like that idea.

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Thanks for reading.

Photo by: Ambro /

One Response to Your Computer, Magic? Or Just a Tool?
  1. […] Keep coming back here for more insights on how you can get the most out of this new “cloud” computing experience. Don’t forget one of the things Bill Gates said about computers in the quote at the top of this post,”…they can be shaped by their user.” Yes they can, because the computer is your tool. […]

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Hi, My name is David Goldman and this blog is not about the World Wide Web. It will talk about that, but mostly this blog will talk about how today's technology has changed the way we go about our everyday lives. Technology, especially the World Wide Web, has changed the way we live our everyday lives. I want to empower you with the knowledge of today's technology to compete with vigor in today's world. You can click the link below to find out some more about me and this blog.

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