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People Who Love Their Computers Too Much

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Joe, a computer programmer, is talking with his psychotherapist. “You’ve got to help me,” he says. “I’ve fallen in love with my computer, but I know I can never marry her.”

“Well, it’s good you haven’t totally lost touch with reality,” notes the therapist.

“Oh, it could never work,” Joe replies. “She wants a career.”

It’s easy to make fun of computer nerds, as did this joke from The Official Computer Freaks Joke Book. But–as can happen with anything taken to an extreme–fascination with computers can be harmful.

The Beloved’s Best Qualities

It’s not difficult to see why computers can fascinate. They allow you to communicate with far more people than a phone or letter. They help you write far more efficiently than a typewriter or pen and paper. They make it possible to keep track of people and things far more easily than a roster or list. They let you budget, forecast, and plan far more effectively than a calculator or table. And they make education far more compelling than words and pictures on paper.

Computers are indeed powerful, and their power can let people compensate for their own perceived lack of power. In today’s world of huge corporate, educational, and government bureaucracies, it’s easy for individuals to feel lost, like a tiny cog in a giant impersonal wheel that spins with no interest or concern about their welfare.

PCs also epitomize newness in a culture that places great importance in it. The PC market is able to rejuvenate itself with every new central processing unit and operating system that’s released, creating well-deserved excitement as well as hype each time.

There has, in fact, been much progress. A run-of-the-mill personal computer today is 10 times faster than it was five years ago. Despite this increase in raw power, PC hardware and most software have fallen in price in absolute terms as well as in dollars adjusted for inflation.

Finally, a personal computer never judges or rejects you (short of a glitch or crash), and it’s usually there for you. If you know what you’re doing, it does what you want, which can’t always be said about human beings. In some ways, a computer mimics the human mind and can become an extension of yourself.

The Dysfunctional Downside

It’s no wonder people love these machines. But some people love them too much, says Richard Johnson, Ph.D., a psychologist from Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, who works with people experiencing “computer addiction.”

Computers can be harmful if they isolate people from other spheres of life, and from other people, he says. If you forgo important social, occupational, educational, or recreational activities in favor of time in front of your computer screen, you’ve taken things too far.

Men are more prone to this than women, says Johnson, but women can experience it too.

Excessive involvement with PCs can be an attempt to fill a void caused by loneliness or to block out insecurity, shyness, or other shortcomings in a person’s life. People can use a PC in a dysfunctional way to deal with guilt or shame or to avoid having to tackle difficult decisions or responsibilities. Because their lives aren’t perfect, some people obsessively tweak and otherwise try to make their computers perfect.

The Healthy Nerd

But while computers can isolate, they can also connect. Many people have developed online friendships and romances that have blossomed into offline relationships. People use the Internet to find and reconnect to old friends and classmates. E-mail and instant messaging can be an easy, low-cost way for family and friends to stay in touch with one another even over great distances.

As with just about everything, much depends on striking a healthy balance. As long as you keep things in perspective, there’s nothing wrong with being a nerd (a word thought to be coined by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo). Or, for that matter, a geek, dweeb, wonk, or freak. As Craig Jackson, a Web professional from Santa Cruz, California, points out on his Geek Web page (http://samsara.circus.com/~omni/geek.html), a computer geek can be a person who simply enjoys being social via his (or her) computer.

If you’re a computer nerd, why not revel in it? At the Web site Geek Culture (http://www.geekculture.com), you can discuss your geekhood with other geeks, send geeky e-cards, and even buy a sleek black propeller beanie. But if you’re really into beanies, the site Broadway Costumes (http://www.broadwaycostumes.com/sales/hats-novelty.htm) sells an even nerdier-looking multicolored propeller beanie for less than half the price.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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