PAINFUL BYTES

Browsing through an old diary this week, I was reminded of the extremely troublesome learning experience I endured with my fellow office workers in the 1980’s. We did not all survive.

One black day, a Ms. Grindstone from company headquarters arrived to train us on the shiny new personal computers and other strange contraptions which Mr. Trubble, our office manager, had installed on our desks.

Ms. Grindstone was a rather tall, gangling, middle-aged woman with bleached hair. I could tell it was bleached because her mustache was slightly darker.

“Personal computers are amazingly simple,” she began and then launched into a rapid-fire lecture peppered with obscurities like Fortran, microchips, data banks, ROM, RAM and megabytes. We listened with mouths agape.

After two mind-boggling hours, Ms. Grindstone conceded, “You were probably unable to absorb every bit of the material, but it’s all there in your instruction books.” Then she left. Joe Duffy in the shipping department claimed it was on a broomstick off the loading dock.

I could tell Ms. Grindstone had followed the instruction book faithfully because her presentation and the book were equally incomprehensible. We were not comforted by the claim in the opening chapter that our computers were “user friendly”.

I soon started entering a routine engineering project report I’d always been able to type in two hours including a coffee break. Two days later I had an almost intelligible document on the screen. But how would I get it printed?

With the help of fellow workers I was able to decipher the instruction book’s 22-step process. I made the final button push at around 3 p.m. and was happy to see my words appearing on the emerging pages. It was almost 5 p.m. when we managed to stop the printer. By then I was standing ankle-deep in copies.

The very next day, old Mr. Hubschman in Personnel, lost touch with reality and threw his stapler into the computer screen, shouting, “It was you or me CRT!” He continued to shout that as they led him out to the ambulance.

A few days later Mrs. Whitney in Billing also slipped into the loony mode after leaving a floppy disk too close to her telephone. Her six-day project was erased. They found her with her arms around the disk drive, weeping uncontrollably. The diagnosis was acute cyberphobia.

The situation became critical. Absenteeism soared and morale plummeted. The usual flood of reports and forecasts had been reduced to a mostly garbled trickle. One statement on budgets consisted mostly of asterisks and question marks. A 650-word analysis of planned projects was completely unintelligible because the computer insisted on having it all printed on one line.

Management called an emergency meeting. A vice president began by suggesting we get Ms. Grindstone back. This was met with a loud, raucous and rather profane response. “We can’t go back to the old ways,” he pleaded. “We’ll be left in the dust!”

It was Ms. Brock, head of the steno section, who saved the day with a suggestion that made sense to every oldtimer and most of the newtimers in the audience. It was immediately adopted by an overwhelming vote.

The following week, the company hired about 50 part-timers who happened to be the teen-aged children and grandchildren of employees. These “consultants” left their lawn mowing and baby-sitting jobs to sit beside their parents and grandparents to teach them the facts of computer life. And we worked happily ever aft9@. Well, almost.

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