Through history, men and women have known that their lives cannot be complete without companionship. But to want companionship and to find it have been (historically speaking) two different matters. Seekers of companionship have turned to others like themselves; to pets; to the bottle; to books, where they can imagine communication with the author; to religion, where they can reach for communication with something greater. Each of these has drawbacks. Men and women, for one, are notoriously fickle. Pets and booze, on the other hand, are far too difficult to shake. Books are silent. God’s voice is so soft, even the faithful have trouble hearing it.

And so the search is always on for a new companion, or at least a new replacement for companionship. For a while, drugs looked like an answer. Mind-altering drugs promised what Colin Wilson called “value experiences,” the illusion that some meaningful event, connecting the drug-taker with a larger and affectionate whole, had occurred within the taker’s own brain. As the addicts and the basket cases of the sixties began to add up, we all learned what a crock that was. Sensible people swore off drugs, but remained receptive to other developments.

Now there is one, the computer. More specifically the personal computer, the smaller machine that’s designed to fulfill an individual’s information-processing needs, but which is already fulfilling emotional needs as well. Why is everyone nuts about the computer? It isn’t just the practical value; although computers are fabulous for some uses, many people who buy them don’t really need them. And it isn’t just the novelty; digital watches were novelties too, but they ran their course while interest in computers keeps building and building.

It’s where the computer fits in our quest for companionship, and our recurring bad dream of loneliness. Computers can give solace to some people, and are even a little bit like people. Soon computers will become a great deal like people— perhaps, to some tastes, an improvement on the real thing. Ensconced in dens and basements all over the country, their stares fixed on computer terminals, men and women of all ages and back- grounds are seeking not to master R.A.M. chips and logic gates, but to find a substitute for the human world that overwhelms them. No longer is just the math-whiz faction losing itself in computers, now it’s everyone, and feelings about other people, rather than love of the machines, are behind it. It is not our urgent need for bar graphs, but our aching hearts, that is drawing computers into many American lives.

Computers have many kinds of appeal, primarily, of course, practical appeal. For writers, accountants, small-business managers, and those who grapple with any kind of inventory, the personal computer or word processor is a gift from on high. Nearly all small computers also have amusement value. Some are supposed to be toys (video games) and others have enough playful qualities to serve as toys. The user can ask his small computer questions, give it orders, make it flash and meep, and cause graphic displays to appear in a sophisticated update of the Etch-A- Sketch.

But let’s be realistic. How many times can you see your overdrawn checkbook converted into a sine wave before the thrill wears off? Where is the lasting fascination of watching sentences deleted from paragraphs? (Unless, of course, you’re a magazine editor, whose life’s work is deleting sentences from paragraphs.) The lawyer may be well-served by a small legal computer at the office; today’s legal computers will arrange citations for briefs and run Corpus Juris Secundum in the wink of an eye. But when he buys another computer for his home, something else is afoot. The business manager, too, may need a computer at work, but when he brings one into his home— where there is no payroll to manage—there must be some other explanation. Ditto for the doctor with a computer at home, the literature professor, the student, and many others.

What matters is not what computers do, but how they do it. They provide the illusion of human interaction. Asking questions of a computer, for instance, is reasonably similar to asking questions of another person—better, maybe, be- cause the computer answers exactly what is asked, doesn’t grumble, and doesn’t mouth off. Working with a computer, all movement and dancing words, is reasonably similar to working with another person—but easier, because it’s less emotionally demanding, safer, and you certainly don’t have to look your best. Computers, unlike people, are wholly controllable and predictable. You can’t fail to get along with a computer; it will never turn on you, and it will never insist on talking about what it wants to talk about or doing what it wants to do. It will never find you boring, never forget to call, never ask a favor. Anyone who has used a good computer has sensed this secret allure.

Already, small computers can create a facsimile of human interaction via the question-and-answer; the operator can even tell his computer secrets by putting personal information into the memory. While this illusion of human interaction is still a limited one, owing to communication through the keyboard and the need to master each machine’s program commands, this is about to change. Sometime in the 1980s “direct access” computers that respond to spoken commands and speak back should become a reality. Voice-recognition “devices” for computers are progressing to a useful stage, as are voice synthesizers that will allow computers to speak, sounding not like the Cylons on “Battlestar Galactica,” but like regular folks. (Some “talking” computers are already on the market, but they can only repeat programmed phrases, and the user cannot address them in any meaningful way. Mostly they nag about the obvious, like the voiceboxes in new Datsuns that announce when the car’s door is open; if talking back to these machines made a difference, all you’d want to say would be, “Shut up.”)

Once owners can talk to their computers directly and receive an original response, the illusion of human interaction will be nearly complete. And the compelling power of computers will become much greater. Consider, for instance, that perhaps 90 percent of the regular communication between people—even two close people, like husband and wife—is mundane. The bulk of daily conversation consists of simple, flat statements like, “what do you want,” “wait a second,” “I’m over here,” “it’s pretty good.” Moments of lyrical expression, or deep emotional contact, are rare even in the most intimate love affairs. If we could eavesdrop on a poet and poetess strolling through a tropical paradise, for every exclamation of lasting beauty we would hear a hundred comments on the order of “Hey, get a load of these coconuts.” Among people who aren’t emotionally involved, conversation is usually pure routine—”what time do you need time,” “I’ll have the fish,” “turn left three degrees.” All of which is to say, most of what passes between human beings could easily be programmed into a computer.

This has nothing to do with the prospect of artificial intelligence and whether computers can be made to “think.” Imitating human speech, and human interaction, will not require “thinking,” just a sophisticated program of situation-cognizance and a good library of comments to make in given situations. Speaking computers could be made to greet their users in the morning by saying, “What’s the weather like out there?” or”Sleep well last night?” Jumping off key words in the user’s reply, the computer would consult its memory for an appropriate follow-up remark. If the reply is “No, couldn’t sleep a wink,” the computer might move to, “Really? Not feeling so good?” None of this requires artificial intelligence, just lots of memory capacity, fast processing, and a skilled programmer. Programming at this level is still a challenge today, but by the end of the 1980s, it will be a parlor trick. The addition of sensors (once they are perfected) may enable coming computers to know how you slept, or what the weather is out there. A home computer with aural sensors, for instance, could be programmed to ignore com- motion during daylight hours, but if it hears tossing and turning between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., to assume its owner hasn’t slept well and greet him at daybreak with, “What’s the matter, something on your mind?”

If this sounds like a Big Brother nightmare, think about it from the lonely person’s perspective. Ours is a society where increasingly thousands—if not millions—of people live alone, fearing their neighbors, and with no social ties to family or church. For my generation, the one turning 30, this pain can be particularly acute. We are children highly skilled in talking, but often with no one to talk to. We acquired, through childhood in the affluent turmoil of the sixties, an especially sharp knowledge of where we are, but few clues as to where we belong. We feel that words are powerful and that somewhere must be the words that will make it right; yet we fear everything we say is ignored or misunderstood. In this environment a talking computer, with some rudimentary awareness of its user’s personal condition, which always pays attention, could be a blessing. It couldn’t possibly provide true companionship, or the emotional heights experienced by lovers, friends, parents, and offspring. But it could keep that mundane chatter—the back- ground noise of human relations—going at all times, providing an illusion of companionship. Today’s computers, even with their keyboard- access and restricted programs, already provide some illusion of companionship (note how words like “delightful” and “cute” are applied to the new round of “user-friendly” machines such as Apple’s Lisa, which flashes messages on her screen). Imagine how much more attractive it will be when the computer illusion of human interaction is refined enough to pass for the real thing at its lower levels.

Terminal Loneliness

A common failing of friendship, and a central failing of romance, is that we try to mold others to fit the image we seek, instead of experiencing them as they are. Everyone is guilty of this at some point—of longing for a fantasy, or a convenience, rather than accepting the less perfect but ultimately more rewarding presence of a person’s true nature. Molding others in your own image seldom works, however, or at least not for long. People are extremely resistant to such tampering.

But computers aren’t. In fact, computers crave it. The computer program is, by nature, the reflected image of the programmer’s desires. Powerful small computers can be programmed to be- have in whatever way pleases their owners, and as computer power expands, and computers learn to speak, it will be possible to give computers “personality traits,” or at least the illusion of them. Again, this has nothing to do with artificial intel- ligence, merely with chip capacity. A computer could be programmed to show interest in some subjects but not others; to speak in the desired tones of voice; to discuss certain things at certain times of day; to deliver flattery. The computer would only be acting out stage directions, of course, but acting them in a very convincing and convenient way.

In nearly all movie and television science fiction, it’s been noted, the computers and the robots have far more personality than the living characters. C3PO was more intriguing and less predictable than Luke Skywalker; the evil robot Lucifer, with his droll wit, had all the good lines in “Galactica”; the kindly robot Robbie nearly stole the show in Forbidden Planet. Some of this traces, of course, to the quality of scriptwriting and to reliance on characters so wooden that mechanical men look real by comparison. But some is due to the ways in which computers can be seen as more desirable than people. Computers can offer the appearance of life—the talking, the joking, the interest in what’s up—without any of the emotional or spiritual complications. Computers have no feelings, so they can be insulted or mistreated without guilt. They have no rights, so they can be switched off should they grow tiresome. Most important, since they are not living and have no expectations, we incur no obligations to them.

These are more than fine points of the conventions of sci-fi scriptwriting: they reflect on how, today, we are beginning to relate to our electronic companions. And they suggest why many of us might come to view computers as companions of choice. This has already happened in fiction. In Arthur Clarke’s new best seller, 2010: Odyssey Two, sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave, the metamorphized star-baby-astronaut, returns in ghost-like form. Meanwhile HAL, the mad computer, has been cured of his antisocial tendencies by a Freudian psychiatrist. At the end of 2010, Dave departs for some other-worldly higher plane to await some unspecified great event that will happen near the end of time; to while away the intervening hours, he selects as his companion, you guessed it, HAL the computer.

When the video game industry started, its first products were conceived as moving versions of the traditional game arrangement—two people would play against each other, only through the medium of a machine instead of on a board. Pong, the first video game, matched two or four players, as did almost all of Atari’s early games, like Combat (two tanks) and Indy 500 (two race cars). Video game sales didn’t take off until the group- play orientation was eliminated and games were designed as man-versus-machine. Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man, Defender, Pitfall, Galaxian, Frogger—all those that have really made money—are played alone. Computer game manufacturers finally realized that their market appeal lay not in colors and motion, but in the fact that their computers could substitute for an opponent. Conventional games like Monopoly and Risk simply can’t be played by a single person and the only play-alone conventional game, Solitaire, has become a cultural synonym for desperation.

Computer games circumvent this problem by providing both the means to play alone and the illusion of someone to play with—by meeping, blinking, changing, and making moves that at least appear spontaneous.

It’s all in the scene at a video-game arcade. Dozens of players (mostly teenagers, who should be out petting or playing softball) hunched over joysticks, fully absorbed in private action. No one talks to anyone else—there’s so much bleeping and blasting going on, talking is impossible any- way—and no one pays any attention to what others are doing. The prevailing air is anonymity, not too different from the Times Square. peep show where customers slink in, slink out, and try not to be noticed while taking anonymous pleasures.

The next wave of video games will advance this condition from teenagers and college kids to adults. Powerful new game-players like the Atari 5200 make possible cartridges that aren’t just spin-and-shoot, but that involve strategy, contemplation, and changing circumstances. The first such adult-oriented video game, Atari’s Star Raiders, is already on the market, with other slower, more subtle games on the way. Once video games are complex enough to engage the adult mind, computers will be all the more attractive as an alternative to companions.

Advertising the solitary aspects of computers presents a delicate problem, as does advertising one-portion frozen meals and other products that serve the lonely market. A direct approach obviously cannot be used (“NOW! SOFTWARE FOR LOSERS!”). But the way computer game advertisers have already solved the problem indicates how computer-companion advertisers will solve it in the near future. In contrast, say, to beer commercials, like “Welcome to Miller Time,” which shows hale friends in hearty communion, video game advertisements rely on grim man-versus-machine confrontations. A commercial for Atari’s 5200 has a single young man, alone, matched against the machine in a featureless enclosure. Mattel Intellivision’s advertisements offer George Plimpton declaring, in his Duchy of Grand Fenwick accent, that his games are intellectually superior. The most revealing ad, however, was a Plimpton-Mattel commercial run this Christmas. A photo trick made it appear, a la the old Patty Duke show, that there were three George Plimptons in the same room engaged in earnest conversation with themselves about the virtues of various game cartridges. The context was entirely self-centered, as if, through the computer, you could enjoy the company of a group consisting solely of you.

Double-edged Disks

Waiting for adulthood to fall under the computer’s spell won’t be necessary for the next generation, however. Computers are increasingly a part of the lives of children, as, given their technological importance, they inevitably must be. Many of their effects on children will be welcome. Computers are already helping re-kindle the national interest in science and mathematics that helped make the country strong and prosperous but waned with the unleashing of more “relevant” curriculum. Computers make excellent learning tools in some areas because they are nonjudgmental (that is, not like people). Kids can ask computers dumb questions without being tittered at. They can go over the same material as many times as necessary, without the computer becoming tired. or testy or anxious to move on to the next subject. In a day when both parents are working and forever racing off to some vital-sounding meeting, sparing only the occasional “quality time” for their children, computers at least can offer quantity time.

But by the same token that computers do not make painful social judgments about children, they can teach nothing about social interaction— about the unpredictable, emotional forces that are essential to life and take so much longer to understand than algebra or European history. There are no bittersweet lessons in the realm of computers, just cause and effect. The kid who plays computer games rather than real games like football won’t get laughed at by the other kids if he’s too small or slow, won’t get hurt, and won’t come home all muddy (so lots of middle-class moms may laud this as a positive development). On the other hand, he won’t learn anything about getting along with his peers, about handling pressure, about camaraderie and coordinated action. Where will his social skills come from? Owing to a smaller family, the child of the future may not have the experience of brothers or sisters, either. While those who substitute computers for people today may do so as a response to some failure or hurt, children of generations to come may go straight to computers for companionship, never really taking their chances with people at all.

A preview of that culture already exists, in the group now derided as “computer nerds.” Computer nerds are the kids who looked funny and didn’t fit in during high school, who lost them- selves in calculus and physics as an escape, and who came into their glory with the computer revolution. The most celebrated computer nerd, Steve Wozniak, created the Apple I; others have fostered important advances in small computers and video games. While expensive “mainframe” computers and long-term research tend to be in the hands of large corporate teams, it is the nerds, often working alone, who specialize in bringing applied computer technology to the consumer market. The nerds, in other words, are the ones shaping the computers available to the average person, and they are shaping them in their own image the image of people for whom the personal side of life has often been harsh, and to whom computers, as companions, are a way out.

Yet non-nerds, regular folks who would con- sider themselves emotionally well-adjusted, comprise the bulk of the computer-buying market. The reason relates, in part, to our educational system. In general, as educational opportunities have expanded, placing college and even graduate school within reach of the many rather than the few, increasing numbers of people have acquired a preference for making life as much like school as possible. It’s only natural. If you spend the first 25 years of life in school, being constantly reminded by generous, self-sacrificing parents that school is the only hope of a better tomorrow, when you get to tomorrow you’d like it to be as familiar as possible, and what’s familiar is school.

This reflects the tremendous urge of people in my generation to become lawyers, not just because practicing law is financially attractive, but be- cause it’s very much like school—writing term papers (briefs) based on library work, being quizzed by professors (judges) on recall of obscure facts, and pretending to care about convoluted theories. It reflects on the present enthusiasm for an “information industry,” because a society based on compiling statistics and analyzing reports would make all life like school. And it reflects on the appeal of computers. Computers are a realm in which the mind prevails, where the intellectual faculties my generation has cultivated at such effort and expense can actually be em- ployed. In computers the skills of school—how to study and think—are the skills of success. It’s a relief, and more than a little flattering, to finally find an area of life that reveres the brains we always thought we had.

Meanwhile, the pure-logic side of computers appeals to every person who has developed the mind at the expense of the heart. In computers logic is absolute, unchallengeable; no chance circumstances or inconvenient emotional factors intrude. It is often observed that intellectual prodigies are slow to mature emotionally, because they dedicate themselves to abstract pursuits and are angered, rather than intrigued, by the concrete world and its compromises. With the great college expansion having taught so many to love the abstract and scoff at the real, even those who don’t have unusual IQs or artistic gifts may slide into arrested emotional development. Almost anyone who has done well at any level of the now-large educational system, and been lauded by parents or teachers for doing so, is in great danger of mistaking the mental world for the real world. To them, computers have become a necessity—a way to show that academic skills are the real world, by going to a place where only brainpower matters.

This sheds light on part of the business community’s hunger for computers. Computers obviously are valuable to many companies, and as time passes and computers improve, will become more so. But it’s a safe bet that many computers are being bought for businesses that don’t really need them or can’t justify the cost, and that management-school graduates are to blame. Modern management schools are not all that different from philosophy departments; students are taught to think in terms of models and logic, to admire detached analysis and brainpower more than experience and to toss out any earthly com- plications that interrupt the flow of theory. When management-school graduates move into the business world, they soon discover a bewildering array of emotional, unpredictable, and just plain illogical forces that their textbooks said they could assume away for the sake of a flawless model. A sales presentation may be quite well-done, for instance, and still not work, even though it “should.” So modern managers are more and more willing to retreat to the realms where “should” is the only factor—computers. By computerizing everything in reach the modern business manager can see his logical faculties rewarded and can put off confrontation with the intractable, illogical problems that may be what really need his attention. Similar events are taking place in government, the military, and other fields of life.

Perhaps oddly, even the dropouts of the sixties are making their peace with computers. Peter McWilliams, author of the hot-selling The Personal Computer Book, got his start by writing about transcendental meditation. David Sudnow, author of Pilgrim in the Microworld, was a sociology teacher at Berkeley during the free-speech days. Computer firms, Susan Chace reported recently in The Wall Street Journal, are enjoying substantial sales to counter-culture types. Computers, perhaps, have some appeal here as the first “clean” industrial technology (users don’t have to see the smokestacks of the generating stations that provide the computers’ power) and because of their ability to expand the mind in a way reminiscent, minus the physical peril, of drugs. The computer is an ethereal world that welcomes creativity—not exactly what Timothy Leary had in mind, but better than nothing.

My speculation, however, is that the hippie heart responds to computers mainly in emotional ways. The counter-culture was rejected and misunderstood by the mainstream. With no Woodstock to retreat to, computers that can be programmed to give at least the illusion of understanding will have to do.

The Fido 5200

For the lonely and the overly intellectual of this generation and others to follow, computers could be the main agents of comfort and consolation. All things considered this is not half bad. Computers are safer than drugs or drink; they have worthwhile applications; they’re smarter than dogs or parakeets. Yet there is something they can never be, regardless of the level of technological advance. A dog’s emotions, though highly simplified compared to ours, are nonetheless real. A dog really cares; when you’re away he misses you and when you’re present he feels joy. These emotions are amplified by numbers. The more people who are around, the happier the dog is. People are the same, happiest in the company of family and friends, although it’s sometimes harder to detect since people don’t display their emotions in the exaggerated style practiced by dogs.

Obviously, on this scale, the most expensive computer finishes way behind a Labrador. A computer’s reactions aren’t real, merely realistic.

Maybe for a lost soul, badly hurt by the world and its unreliable occupants, computers are a haven we should not begrudge. But what happens when people start going straight to computers for their companionship, bypassing the danger of hurt but also the hope of transport?

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Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.