Danger - micros can damage your marriage Hat

Danger - micros can damage your marriage

What do you do when the other woman is a winking, bleeping seducer who's turning your man into a micro-junkie . . . commit computicide?
Jane Firbank investigates

If each man kills the thing he loves, then we're certainly getting to love computers. 'Computicide' is the coming thing in crime, according to Californian researcher Donn Parker. They've been shot, he reports, 'burned up with gasoline and plastic explosives, stabbed with screwdrivers, attacked, in one case, with the heel of a woman's shoe and electrically shorted out with a metal key'.

And Americans can buy a rubber 'baseball bat' for less lethal computer-battering. The principle's the same as those boss figures which steamed-up Japanese workers are urged to throw things at.

Furious, frustrated and exasperated computer users will sympathise. But that's only half of our love-hate relationship with our new toy. The other half is obsession. People can get hooked on their micros, retreating from the real world into an electronic shadowland.

American therapist Thomas Macdonald of La Jolla, California, has counselled more than 1,000 disturbed couples where the 'other woman' is electronic. The classic junkie, he says, is a male who deals with computers at work, then comes home and keeps on computing.

An American marriage guidance organisation surveyed 6,000 couples with home micros and marriage difficulties. Half said the computer caused their divorce, all said it had caused difficulties.

But is buying a Spectrum really the first step on the slippery road to divorce or social isolation? 'No,' says Renate Olins, director of the London Marriage Guidance Council. 'I don't think marriages break up over computers. The cause is more profound. An obsessional interest in anything by one partner leads to the other feeling neglected, abandoned, disregarded.

'A remote, withdrawn man may find it easier and more manageable to relate to a computer than a human being. But that's down to the personalities involved, not the computer.'

There certainly are people who, in the pre-electronic dark ages, would have shut themselves away in the spare room collecting stamps, rather than risk interacting with other human beings. Today, some of them are micro-junkies. Tkey spend every possible moment at the keyboard.

The true junkie is fascinated by the computer for its own sake, not as a tool. So he'll spend hours writing a program to do something he could do in ten minutes with a pencil and paper. He'll use his computer to add two and two.

He may spend literally years polishing a program to make it more 'elegant', with little concern for its eventual use. Someone who spends all his time putting a computer to commercial use isn't a junkie; he's a workaholic.

Micro-junkies are under study by researcher Margaret Shotton of Loughborough. 'I'm the only person in the world actually doing research to see whether the micro-junkie is a fact or a myth. My work's in its infancy - but I think they do exist. Some people find it easier to relate to computers than to human beings. The computer doesn't make emotional demands. It's logical, which people aren't.

'Also, unlike people, a computer is always there, always responsive, patient and non-judgmental. Even if you make the same mistake for the hundredth time it won't call you a fool. It doesn't threaten your ego in the deep way another person can.'

What keeps the user going is the enormous satisfaction of controlling the machine. 'When a program you've written works, you feel like an artist who's just put the last daub of paint on a canvas,' says computer writer and program ner Nigel Cross.

Computer obsessives are driven by a need for power, says Joseph Weizenbaum, professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Computer Power and Human Reason. 'The test of absolute power is certain and absolute control. When dealing with the compulsive programmer, we are therefore also dealing with his needs to control and his need for certainty.'

The true microjunkie is almost always male. 'I think that's because men are more leery of emotion and keener on establishing control,' says Dr Antonia Jones, a researcher into artiffcial intelligence at Brunel University. 'Women are more practical, more likely to see the computer in terms Of what it can do, not as an end in itself. They're less likely to neglect the personal, emotional side of life - which the computer doesn't cater for.'

Partly, too, this sex bias arises from the fact that there are so few women in computer studies.

And could it be that computers appeal to the paternal instinct? One report a few years ago asserted that the male fascination with them was compensation for their inability to have children!

Some junkies actually identify with their machines; one man had to tell himself to 'PRINT' before he spoke, and to 'LOG OUT' before he could go to sleep. Others just play, and play, and play, endlessly - but unproductively - occupied.

This is why universities try not to take junkies on. 'The students who get really hooked on computing never seem to do very well at their work,' says Antonia Jones. Luckily, the real junkie is a rare bird.

'I got hooked on computers when I began to get into them during a degree course three years ago,' says 30 year-old librarian Frank Dunn of Liverpool. 'I just sat down and played all day, learning programming and so on.

'That lasted for about a year. It cut me off socially, my family complained because I was up till all hours and lost touch with other interests. Computing kept me away from some course work.

'But eventually you become disillusioned. You start by thinking the computer can do all sorts of things which you find it can't. Now it's still an important part of my life but not all of it.'

Every aspiring programmer dreams of hitting the big-time by writing a top selling game. But for Ross Holman of Sidcup solving them is just as much of a challenge.

With a friend, he recently cracked the best-selling run and zap game Jet Set Willy ahead of perhaps half a million other contenders for a prize of a helicopter trip and a crate of champagne. They've opted for cash instead, though, to spend on computers.

Lecturer and artificial intelligence researcher Richard Bartle of Essex University's Department of Computing Science is into games of another sort. The twenty-four-year-old Richard is the main creator of MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), a vast dungeons-and-dragons adventure held on a mainframe computer at Essex University. You can ring up the computer in its free time (the small hours of the morning), don a couple of suitable identities (most players have at least two, one of each sex) and explore his fantasy world.

MUD has a devoted following (one regular player lives in Japan) among whom some must certainly be counted micro-junkies. One unemployed participant built up a £1,000 phone bill and got zapped by British Telecom. It took Richard Bartle two years to write MUD in his spare time: three hours a night, 10 hours at weekends.

'When you play MUD you're not J. Smith any more but Gizzard the Wizard,' he says. 'The game is a way you can vent you feelings, pretend to be someone you aren't. That's the fascination; the computer is just a medium. I'm not a computer junkie. It's not so much that my life revolves around them as that they appear everywhere, in everything I do.'

Other micro devotees agree. I talked to 18-year-old 'whizz kid' Jeremy San at his parents' house in London's Mill Hill, in a scrupulously tidy room containing seven computers and a host of equipment for linking himself up to computer databases in the UK and America.

Jeremy - or Jez the Wizard, as he signs his messages on the Prestel database Micronet - is co-author of Quantum Theory, a book on the Sinclair QL, and is currently working on two other computer books.

'Probably 90 per cent of my waking life is spent on the computer,' he said as he checked the graphics for a computer game he's writing with a couple of friends. 'I'm often up till four in the morning playing MUD.'

To the growing band of micro devotees, life without computers is as unthinkable as life without phones, TV and the internal combustion engine would be to the rest of us. Maybe the monitor does offer only a shadow life. But it can be as compelling as the real thing - often more so.

Richard A. Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk)
21st January 1999: ms211084.htm