REVIEW: In Cyberspace
Dave Barry
Fawcett Columbine Books

Bestselling humor book about computers and computer people, cyberporn and the net. It is funny to anybody who works with these machines, but is aimed at a slightly older and less sophisticated audience than the Slashdot crowd.
Rating: 7/10

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The Scenario

Dave Barry is a comedy writer who makes more money than I care to think about by writing about boogers and broken appliances. If you have used the Internet longer than six months, you've probably been e-mailed his essay about the exploding whale in Oregon. Barry's humor often relies on mocking uncomfortable truths, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for political commentary several years ago. In this book (which contains mostly new material), Barry writes about Microsoft Word, tech support hotlines, hardware upgrades, selecting fonts, and other topics close to the heart of any computer user.

What's Bad?

Barry is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a sophisticated computer user. Though amusing to just about anybody, his jokes are intended for readers with an understanding of computers similar to his own. Intepreting various comments he makes about the first computer he ever owned, he's probably been using PCs since the early 1980s (the book was published in 1996).

This computer had virtually no practical use other than to consume electricity. You know how modern personal computers contain a microchip "brain" that, despite being no larger than a Chiclet, can perform millions of mathematical calculations per second? Well, I don't think my Radio Shack computer had one of those. I think there might have been an actual Chiclet in there, calling the shots...

Most of the humor, therefore, is about the goofy error messages in Windows 95. You can generalize his jokes to apply to the goofy error messages from other operating systems, but don't expect him to talk about the particular difficulties that a typical Slashdot reader confronts. The book is also somewhat repetitive.

What's Good?

Many of Barry's jokes fall into two categories: the difficulty of getting a new computer (or new software) to work, and the sad fact that they're not very useful even once you have them working. This second point is even more true than Barry may realize. Every study I have read on the effect on introducing computers into a workplace shows a drop in productivity as a result. While computers may speed routine tasks, the time that is freed is then spent fussing with the computer, playing with fonts, chaging desktop pictures, and so forth.

Computer spending has increased essentially every year for decades. In 1996, companies in the United States spent 43% of their capital budgets on computer hardware. That is more than they invested in factories, vehicles or any other type of durable equipment. Meanwhile, productivity growth in the seven richest nations of the world has fallen precipitously in the past 30 years, from an average of 4.5% a year during the 1960s to a rate of 1.5% recently. The slowdown has hit the biggest IT spenders -- service-sector industries, especially in the U.S. -- hardest.

Barry's brilliance comes from his ability to reflect troubling truths like this in memorable quips.

You know how annoying it can be to keep a schedule on old-fashioned paper: Every time you want to record an appointment, you have to get out your schedule book and write your appointment down. Wouldn't it be easier if you simply had to go to your computer, turn it on, wait for it to "boot up," use the mouse to locate and click on the scheduling program icon, wait for the program to load, then use the mouse to get to the right day, then type in the appointment information in the proper space, and the time in the proper space, making sure to use the format allowed by the program, then close the scheduling program without being 100 percent certain that you would ever see this information again?

If you answered "Yes!" then you're ready to join the millions of cyberhumans like me who have dumped clumsy schedule-and-address books weighing as much as three ounces and are now carrying around laptop computers that can incorporate the same information in a package that -- including power cables, spare batteries, etc. -- weighs easily 25 times as much!...

While this passage may be somewhat dated by the introduction of the Palm Pilot, his larger point remains true, that many of us compulsively use computers even where they make our lives less pleasant. His descriptions of the web are funny, though dated. One chapter, widely circulated via e-mail, lists some of Barry's favorite websites and makes fun of them. Of course, he warns us that "By the time you read this, you may not be able to visit all of these pages. I visited most of them in mid-1996; some of them may have since gone out of existence for various reasons, such as that their creators were recalled to their home planets." The list includes "Mr. T Ate My Balls," the "Trojan Room Coffee Machine," the famous Oregon "Exploding Whale", and other sites you've probably visited at one point or another. Given what I have already said, it should come as no surprise that Barry describes one of the chief benefits of the net that, if it's 8pm and your 12 year old kid suddenly remembers that he has a report on the Spanish-American War due the next morning,

No problem! Your cyber-savvy youngster simple turns on your computer, activates your modem, logs on to the Internet -- the revolutionary "Information Superhighway" -- and, in a matter of minutes, is exchanging pictures of naked women with other youngsters all over North America.

The MsPtato and RayAdverb chapters represent a sharp change in style, telling in straightforward narrative the story of two adult strangers who meet in Internet chatrooms and find themselves to be soulmates. For readers who are new to the net, I think these chapters would illustrate how the net breaks down social barriers and changes peoples lives.

So What's In It For Me?

It's funny. You can read the chapters in any order. I suggest borrowing it from a library or a friend, because you'll finish it in less than an hour.

Table of Contents

  1. A Brief History of Computing from Cave Walls to Windows 95
    Not That This is Necessarily Progress
  2. How Computers Work
  3. How touy and Set Up a Computer
    Step One: Get Valium
  4. Becoming Computer Literate
    Or: Words for Nerds
  5. Comdex
    Nerdstock in the Desert
    Or; Bill Gates
    Is Elvis
  6. Software
    Making Your Computer Come Alive So It Can Attack You
  7. How to Install Software
    A 12-Step Program
  8. Word Processing
    How to Press an Enormous Number of Keys Without Ever Actually Writing Anything
    Or: If God Had Wanted Us to Be Concise, He Wouldn't Have Given Us So Many Fonts
  9. The Internet
    Transforming Society and Shaping the Future, Through Chat
    Or: Watch What You Write, Mr. Chuckletrousers
    Or: Why Suck is OK, Blow is Not
    Plus: Danger! Sushi Tapeworms!
  10. Using Internet "Shorthand"
    How You Can Be Just as Original as Everybody Else
  11. Selected Web Sites
    At Last: Proof that Civilization is Doomed
  12. MsPtato and RayAdverb
    A Story of Love Online
  13. Conclusion
    The Future of the Computer Revolution
    Or: Fun with Mister Johnson
  14. Reprise
    MsPtato and RayAdverb

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