Like a carving knife

Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Columbia Journal, April 2003

The lives of most readers of the Columbia Journal have been impacted, for better and for worse by computers and the Internet.  Most of you use them at work, whether your work is at a desk or in a garage.

At least as many of you use them at home, following the news, e-mailing friends and relations, playing games, and more. Even when we’re not using them, they’re in the news, and not just on the business pages. Computer virus outbreaks are as likely to be reported in the news sections as news about AIDS or the West Nile Virus.

Information technologies can provide a tool for organizing for social change. Zapatista rebels used computers and modems to keep in touch with their supporters in Mexico and abroad. Informal networks making use of the Internet helped build anti-globalization protests in Seattle and elsewhere. And Canadian websites like and help provide alternatives to the daily news and tools for organizers.

These same technologies however are also a battlefield for corporate alliances looking to gain control over your spending habits. Microsoft, with its quasi-monopolies over computer operating systems and office suite software has the largest stock valuation of any company in the world and more than US$43 billion in cash and short-term investments, (a war-chest that's growing at a rate of US$1 billion a month).

E-mail can keep far-flung family members in touch, and personal web sites let you share your wedding photos with the world. Computer games and the Internet can become a new-style addiction, though, or form a new distribution mechanism for pornography and gambling. We're bombarded with ads to convince us that our computer isn?t fast enough, that it?s already to time to move up to this year's model.

In other words, computer technology is a tool. Like a carving knife, it isn't inherently good or bad. A carving knife can be used to help make dinner or to murder a stranger. The Internet can provide a voice for points of view left out of the daily newspapers and can help sell the latest fads; computers are a tool for networks trying to build for social change and for corporations looking to track (and control) our spending habits.

The computer and video game industry is now larger than the movie industry; I'm sure that more is spent on home computers and related tech toys then on TVs and home stereos. I'm still using the stereo system I bought in the mid-1980s; few of us would want to work or play on a computer from that era.

Nevertheless, it is possible to resist the advertisers' subliminal hints that our computer and its software is already obsolete by the time it's out of the box. Open source projects like
Linux, OpenOffice, The Gimp, and Mozilla, created by unpaid networks of volunteers, provide free alternatives to the commercial projects of Microsoft, Adobe, and others.

And your three or five year old computer probably isn't ready for the scrap-heap yet. Despite the ads proclaiming Newer! Faster! Better! your computer probably has years of useful life left in it. And (a real benefit of the industry's constant upgrading) if you don't have a computer (or need another one), you can get a still-usable recent model for far less than the cost of this season's model.

In coming issues, this column will look at ways to use technology: to keep safe on the Internet, to make the best use of affordable hardware and software, to stretch the useful life of your computer, and more.

Feel free to check out my website ( or e-mail me ( with suggestions, comments, or cries for help. I'm not trying to sell you anything.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan