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12/96 Analysis: Dialog Box

Picasso, E-Mail and Me

At first wary, this TV journalist is now going with the flow of technology.

By Linda Ellerbee

TECHNOLOGY RUNS ABOUT 20 years ahead of conscious thought. At least that's been my experience. I would no longer describe myself as technologically challenged, but I'm not a computer nerd. This, of course, means I'm not rich, either. My daughter lives in Seattle. She's 27. She tells me about people her age who are very rich. "Bill made them rich," she says. I tell her I've seen Bill Gates, and money can buy you many things, but it doesn't necessarily buy a decent haircut.

If I remain somewhat wary of computers, I've a right. My first experience with them was painful. It was 1972. I worked for the Associated Press in Dallas. We were the AP's test bureau for computers. Actually, they were just terminals, CRTs. We hated them. We were journalists (make that Journalists) and we knew how these things were supposed to work. Shouting "Stop the presses!" is fun. Shouting "Stop the cathode ray tube!" is not.

There came a day when I wish I could have yelled just that. Believing I had a grasp of these things, I wrote a letter to a friend on my CRT and then, through the miracle of modern technology combined with the aforementioned lack of conscious thought, sent it over the AP news wire.

In the letter, I had expressed myself candidly about the Dallas City Council, the city of Dallas, the Vietnam War, a man I was dating and, naturally, my employer. Everybody found the whole thing extremely amusing-everybody but the AP and, as a result of my sudden unemployment, me. Newsweek wrote a clever story about the incident. I canceled my subscription. If you can no longer afford to eat, you can't waste money on some snippy, Eastern elitist, left-wing, commie, pervert magazine.

However, you'll remember Lizzie Borden was acquitted, so it should come as no surprise that I was hired as a reporter for a television station whose news director thought I had been funny intentionally. Television was not, I was to learn, run by rocket scientists.

Today, television is run by computers, or, more accurately, with computers. On one level, television always was a technology-driven business, but the technology was wrapped in expensive, proprietary black boxes. Now powerful desktop computers built around open systems are beginning to push aside these industry giants.

I now run my own TV production company. We started as an all-Mac office, but we've become agnostic. If you want Windows, you can have Windows. If you need UNIX, you get UNIX. I have to listen to a lot of talk about computer stuff, mostly from the twenty-somethings who are more at home with computers than I can ever hope to be. They speak glowingly of Lotus Notes, but I have a question: If IBM paid billions for this product, why can nobody explain what it does?

My favorite employee is the ghost. Three years ago, we were looking for a part-time system administrator. An acquaintance's recommendation led us, through the Internet, to a sysadmin for Columbia University's Center for Telecommunications Research. We reached an agreement on financial terms via e-mail, and he's been administering our systems ever since. Periodically, we ask him to do something-set up a new machine, upgrade some software or whatever. He does it over the Net and e-mails the bill. We've still never met the man.

Now we use the Net for everything from acquiring equipment to researching stories to setting up production shoots. On the rare occasions our connections go down, screams of anguish echo through the halls.

My partner embraces all this stuff. Loves computers. Loves the Net. I tell him he's weird. He says I mean "wired." I tell him he might be spending a tad too much time on the Net. He asks what I mean. I point out our dog has his own home page. He says, "So, what's your point?"

I'm not that connected, but I've made my peace with technology. I've come a long way from the days when somebody would say, "The computer is down," and I'd say, "I hope it's serious."

Truth is, computers have changed my life. First, they threw me into television. Then they threw television into the future. Who knows where they'll take us next? Maybe we should ask them. After all, it was Pablo Picasso (another low-techie) who once-so very long ago-said, "That's the trouble with computers. They can only give you answers."

Journalist and author Linda Ellerbee owns Lucky Duck Productions, a TV production company. Contact Linda in the "Dialog Box" topic of the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, or Send it to Nancy A. Lang, whose e-mail ID is:

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