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Computerspeak – Interpreter Required?

This article appeared in The Sydney Business Review on 15 July, 1995

HelpLine: "Holden HelpLine, how can I help you?"
Customer: "I got in my car and closed the door and nothing happened!"
HelpLine: "Did you put the key in the ignition slot and turn it?"
Customer: "What's an ignition?"
HelpLine: "It's a switch that allows the starter motor to draw current from your battery and turn over the engine."
Customer: "Ignition? Motor? Battery? Engine? How come I have to know all these technical terms just to use my car?"

There are three reasons why people speak in industry jargon. The first is to increase communication between practitioners. The second is to show how clever and informed the speaker is. The third is to be rude to outsiders. The first of these is a legitimate practice as it is confined to consenting adults in private. The other two are used by ignorant fools in computer shops. "Ignorant" has two meanings and both apply here.

Some jargon terms are worth knowing, just because they save time. When you learnt to drive you may have used a control which disconnected the engine from the transmission so that the relative speeds could be adjusted or so that the engine could continue to turn while the car was still. You may also have used a control which allowed you to convert the car's kinetic energy into heat so that the car's momentum could be reduced without violating conservation of energy laws. You probably called these controls the "clutch" and "brake".

The only jargon words you need to know to use a computer effectively are: byte, file, open, close, click, double click, drag, exit, directory (or folder), icon, menu, program, window, slider bar, box, browse. You also need to know how to use a mouse and a few keys. Everything else is the responsibility of your computer supplier or support person, who will explain clearly what he means if he needs to use other technical language in your presence. The term "computer illiterate" is a piece of jargon specifically invented to insult people who are not experts. There is no such thing as "computer illiteracy".

There are some other terms you may see in computer advertisements. All you really have to know about these are that they mean nothing. Some examples follow.

Comes with DOS, Windows and a mouse

A computer can't run without an operating system, all useful programs require Windows, and Windows needs a mouse. This claim is like advertising that a new car comes with registration and CTP insurance. One of Parramatta's leading computer shops sells machines with stolen copies of DOS and Windows, which is like selling a new car with fake plates and a photocopied registration window sticker.

VLB or PCI motherboard

All 486 computers come with what is called a Video Local Bus (VLB). All Pentium computers come with Peripheral Component Interconnect bus (PCI). Saying that the machine has one of these is like saying that a car has an engine. The deception for the computer novice is that while a computer cannot be built without one of these, it can be built so that they are not used. Unless the machine has the correct components, it's like saying that you should pay more for your car because some cars like yours have air conditioning but your one doesn't.

14" Super VGA screen

This is the absolute minimum standard that can be supplied, and is like featuring the fact that a car has rubber tyres. The joke is that almost no computers are sold with Super VGA activated (because you can't read a 14" screen set like that). In fact, even the cheapest screens have specifications which far exceed any possible use. My Hyundai has a speedometer which goes to 200Kph too.


This used to mean that more than one sense is involved, and was brand new when Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer. It now means that if the CD-ROM drive is fast enough (which it isn't) and your computer has good speakers (which it hasn't) and the video reproduction software and screen quality are up to it (which they aren't), you can watch a few minutes out of a two-hour film. Note to smirking Macintosh and Amiga owners – this applies to you too, so don't kid yourself.

Copyright © 1998- Peter Bowditch

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