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Can the computer alter our thinking?

There is something lacking in this column. Today's hottest selling IBM software is Windows 3.0, which tries to make the IBM pretend it's a Mac. Notwithstanding (if I may use the word), an excellent review supplied by Yves Volpe, MCIC (see November/December, pp 8-9), nobody is submitting reviews of Mac software. Brochures received for IBM software outnumber those for the Mac by at least 50:1. Is there a message?

The original Apple computer was an outstanding system. Its open architecture let users add their own bits and pieces to the circuitry allowing Apples to be incorporated into equipment and become an integral part of everyday laboratory life. The introduction of the IBM brought another open system; clones quickly sprang up and intense competition forced prices to drop. Unlike the original Apple, the Mac is a very tightly controlled and very expensive system. The world quickly split into three groups: IBM people, a lesser number of Macintosh people and a vast majority of computer-illiterates who retained the skill to operate pen and paper.

Although, the users of each system believe their's is best and can not understand how anyone would use the other, all three are capable of doing things beyond our wildest dreams. A recent study by Marcia Peoples Halio, professor of english at the University of Delaware, indicates a significant difference in the quality of work done by users of the two computer systems. She teaches a freshman class in writing. The students use word-processors and have a free choice of IBM or Mac.

Analysis of the student essays provides some startling differences. A readability score in the form of the Kincaid Index takes into account a number of factors related to complexity of sentencen structure. The value is a rough measure of the educational level of the writing. The IBM users average a Kincaid Index of 12.1 (college level) and the Mac users average 7.95 (grade eight). The IBM users wrote 22.6 words per sentence compared with 16.3 for the Mac and were more likely to start a sentence with a subordinating conjunction. The IBM users tended to be better proofreaders, averaging four misspellings per essay, compared to 15 for the Mac users. It was also interesting to note that the IBM users selected more profound essay topics.

There was little, if anything at all, to distinguish between the type of student who would choose one machine over the other. Some picked almost at random, based upon factors such as class schedule. What accounts for the difference? Is is the ultra-serious 'Big Blue' image versus the 'fun machine'. There is a television commercial for the Mac that ends with the message, "people enjoy using the Mac". Is this ease of operation working against the user? To erase a file with a Mac, you need only move your mouse to make an arrow point at a picture of a garbage can and it is gone. With the IBM, you must type the word erase, followed by the file name(s). Make one mistake in the spelling or punctuation and DOS comes back with Bad command or file name. DOS is a relatively simple language to master and it forces some discipline upon the user. Moving and clicking a mouse may be too close to arcade games. Perhaps this explains the students giving nicknames to the printers they use with the Mac, but not the IBM.

Another advantage of the Mac is the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) screen and the extensive font types readily available. It is difficult to avoid making something that looks good. The mundane IBM screen is very dull and you have to spend a lot of time teaching the printer to do things without any idea of what it is doing. The best word processing packages, eg. WordPerfect 5.1 (see April'90, p.6), only provide a non-interactive preview mode. Students have learned over the years that they get better marks with typed essays compared to hand-written ones. Whether this is true or not, few faculty would challenge the comment as they prefer to mark material they can read and will do anything to encourage more of it. On the other hand, are we in an era when the appearance of the article is more important than its content?

Is Chemputing going to recommend one over the other? As both can do anything we throw at them, the difference is not in the equipment but in attitudes of the user. As one of the IBM people, I prefer this machine, especially when it is necessary to exchange files. The machines and the users do have one thing in common; they barely speak to each other.


Marcia Peoples Halio, 'Student Writing, Can the Machine Maim the Message', Academic Computing, 4, 16, (January 1990).
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Title Annotation:differences between Macintosh and IBM computer users
Author:Silbert, Marvin D.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Science and Technology and the CIC.
Next Article:Creative scientific documents in a modern computing environment.

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