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Make The Instrument Sing

kThe computer operator sat tapping broken rhythms on his terminal keyboard, causing a stream of tiny green characters to flow across the screen. Strange business, this computer, he mused to himself. He halted his typing for a moment to observe the sterile bustle of activity around him - a small army of smart looking men and women clacking away at their keyboards, with others shuttling little pieces of paper from station to station with. It struck him as rather amazing the amount of activity that revolved around these strange plastic creatures with their single rectangular eyes. For a machine that was heralded as the Great Time Saver, the computer has certainly created a great deal of activity. And paper! The paperless office now has a wide range of printing devices spewing out miles of paper at ever increasing rates. And all to save time processing the work created by other computers - a kind of self-feeding industry of efficient activity.

At one time industrial growth was measured by the amount of tangible product. Now, to a great extent, the concrete product has little significance to this whir of activity. It is information about how the information is dissembled that matters, thus creating a self-feeding universe of speeding numbers.

He recalled something Joseph Campbell, the eminent scholar of myth, had said in interview with Bill Moyers. Campbell had said that his computer reminded him of the God of the Old Testament - full of difficult laws and short on compassion.

Paul mused further that if the computer was a kind of God, it is like a false God, a grand Deceiver make of silicon and plastic. After all, what did the computer actually do. It is just an array of thousands of minute switches that turn on and off at the speed of light, giving the illusion of intelligible activity. The computer does not know anything about the report on the screen. All it knows is one and zero. Yet look at the power our society has given those little switches!

Paul stared at his keyboard and contemplated the power, the time, the energy that he had given to the synthetic Deceiver in front of him. He had bought his first computer as a tool for writing. He grew fascinated by the flashy new uses that were invented daily. Then he started to program, to try to harness the God for his own use. This devoured hour after hour - thousands of hours in all probability.

Then Paul became a professional computer analyst. It certainly was not his first choice of vocations. But he seemed to have a talent and an interest in the thing. And jobs seemed to be plentiful and well paid. And those around him seemed to think it was better to embrace the Deceiver and be paid, then to pursue such 'intangible' entities such as music and literature and, by usual association, poverty.

Paul began to sense an emptiness in his whole person, an awareness that something was missing, something was lost. Just then the phone rang.

Paul picked up the phone to hear a rather electronic sounding voice announce, "Mr. Grey would like to speak to you. Will you please hold the line."

Great, Paul thought darkly to himself, we have gone beyond being merely being put on hold when we phone for information, to people phoning to put us on hold. Paul tried to disguise his annoyance when his supervisor came on the line to ask, in a prodding sort of way, about Paul's progress on his assignment. Yes yes. All was well with the project. It would be ready on time.

Paul hung up the phone and brooded over a new awareness, an awareness that all was not well with the project. Certainly, it would be ready on schedule. But his heart was not in it. Paul tried to grasp the importance of the project. It was important to someone, was it not? He was being paid a lot money to work on it, so it must therefore be important. Surely. Or was it the work of the Deceiver, yet another strand in the spinning web of activity created by the silicon God. The project was fine. Paul was not. He had caught a glimpse through a chink in the illusion.

Paul drove towards his home in a brown study. He felt as though he had been set adrift in a lonely sea. He felt misled. But who had misled him. Had it been the silicon Deceiver? Had it been the well meaning people who had advised him. Or was it himself. Had he lost something important. What was it. Could he get it back.

Instead of going home, Paul drove to a park at the edge of the city. Paul left his sports jacket in the car and hopped over a short rock wall to get on to a stretch of beach. He made his way across the sand, littered with disposable cartons, to sit on a withered log with a view overlooking the outer harbour. A small group of children were frolicking on the beach, while their mother's gathered up the blankets and toys in preparation for going home.

Paul sniffed the air to see if he could smell the sea - he used to love the smell of the sea. Strangely, he could barely smell a thing. Had his sense of smell atrophied, or become desensitized by the reek of the fast food that used to occupy the sea of cartons strewn on the beach. What other senses had he lost. His ears, he knew, had been well battered by years of playing drums in rock and roll bands. He had also dimly noticed a certain dullness of spirit, an apathy, a lack of sensitivity for the little sufferings of the people around him or for the colossal sufferings of whole peoples on the evening news.

Paul watched as the sun began to set, hoping that the splash of natural grandeur would awaken his numb soul to something more, something that he had somehow lost or misplaced. The glowing sun slowly sank into the vast ocean, leaving Paul as empty as before. Paul's malady would not be patched by a cosmetic apparition, like nature's own get-well card, no matter how beautiful.

He glanced at his watch and decided that it was time to go home. He brushed the sand from his slacks and started out towards the parking lot. About half way there he stopped to listen to a peculiar sound. In the fading light Paul could just make out the silhouette of a man playing some sort of wind instrument. Paul felt compelled to get closer to the sound. The thin, middle-aged man stopped playing and greeted Paul.

"Nice evening, isn't it"

"Yes it is. I was fascinated by the sound of your instrument. Can I listen for a while."

"Certainly. Have a seat. This is just a simple recorder, but no matter, it makes splendid music, just the same."

The man produced the most incredible music that Paul had ever heard. The music , which seemed to soar out from the musicians soul through the humble recorder, engrossed Paul for a long time. Paul felt that music was filling a deep emptiness within his own heart. Still, a persistent sadness filled his being.

The musician looked at Paul and sensed his sadness. The man stopped playing and said.

"You look very unhappy about something. I know you don't know me at all, but can we talk about it?"

Paul hesitated for a moment then tried to explain the ambivalent feelings he was having about his life. The musician listened patiently as Paul emptied out all of his misgivings about his career.

The musician thought in silence for a moment, then commented, "I think I see what your problem is. It seems that you have lost sight of what the computer really is. It is an instrument, like this recorder. In the right hands it can create marvellous music - in the wrong hands, noise. Maybe you can't play the recorder, but maybe you can make the instrument that is the computer sing. Use it for a tool to bring joy, or comfort, or knowledge, or whatever to the people whose lives it touches. You are dissatisfied with your job because you feel you have given up an essential part of your self for the sake of your career. But before you give up your job, consider whether you could integrate the neglected dimensions of your self with the music you make with your instrument, the computer. If the environment of your present job won't allow you make beautiful music, find another gig. But don't be hasty in blaming the instrument."

The musician broke off and resumed playing. Paul listened for a long time, all the while pondering what the man had said. Gradually the sadness lifted from his heart. He nodded a silent thanks to the musician and strolled back to the car, his heart filled with new possibilities.

Greg Dixon
started September 1988, completed first draft July 21, 1989