This book began as practical notes for friends who had just bought home computers, and were now staring with horror at their new acquisitions. I would help them get started and leave a set of these notes for reference. Because my notes were written on a word processor, I added a little more each time. I began to get feedback. You should have mentioned this or that, they’d tell me. The notes began to get longer and longer.
I began to realize that first-time computer users needed help with something not covered in most books and manuals – namely, an attitude to take toward this new kind of machine. How to think about computers, not just how to use them.
Meanwhile, I had started to develop computer programs for film production, a business that previously used no computers at all. I was plunged into a whole new world: buying minicomputer hardware, supervising programmers, and trying to convince suspicious specialists that their lives would be simpler and better (and they would not lose their jobs) if they used these machines. The new programs were easy to use, but visitors became so anxious around a computer terminal they couldn’t recognize that they could save millions of dollars using them.
Again I was thrown back to attitudes.
In June 1982, I attended the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, and watched professionals in another field struggling with computers and what they meant. Once again, attitudes seemed critical.
Computers really are unprecedented machines in everyday life, and they do demand a whole set of new attitudes. This leaves people feeling helpless and lost. I hope this book helps. At the very least, having written it, I can stop talking about it myself.
In the early 80’s the computer began to take on a more important role in business, in education and in the home. The primary obstacle between computer manufacturer and user was language. People thought computers were too complicated and of benefit only to those specially trained in its use. Words that have now become part of our vernacular like “hard drive,” “floppy disk” and “application” appeared to be a foreign language. Michael Crichton saw the need for an easy-to- understand guide explaining the new world of computers to “regular people.”
Electronic Life was created as a layman’s guide to computers. It explained simply, concisely and without jargon what computers really are, how to choose them, how to use them, how to think about them, how to live with them, how to get them to help you, how to keep them in their place, how to enjoy the, It described step-by-step instructions on what to do when you first approach a new computer to sound advice on how to stop your computer from causing trouble in the family. His message: Don’t be afraid of them, they’re only machines, they’re here to make your life easier, and, what’s more, they can be a lot of fun.
In a 1983 article promoting Electronic Life, written by Christine Sinrud Shade for Micro Discovery magazine, Michael Crichton is asked about the necessity of a home computer:
Does the average person need a computer? “You probably don’t” says Crichton. “Just like you don’t need a TV or a microwave oven.”
I wrote Electronic Life as much to suggest problems with them [computers] as to encourage people to use them, My feeling really was that these little machines are now here. Instead of having some kind of fictional book or movie in which the access to computers is a very distant notion, something in the hands of specialized people who presumably know what they’re doing, that everyone’s going to be able to use them and interact with them and they’re going to be very inexpensive and ubiquitous. And that calls for a balanced attitude.
In 1984, Michael Crichton was interviewed by Alan Cheuse for an article called “Standing Out in the Crowd: The Diversified Genius of Michael Crichton: Modern Man of Medicine, Films, Books and Computers” that was published in the HCA Companion. In it he talks about Electronic Life, computers and technology including his first word processor:
“My senior thesis was a study of ancient Egyptian racial history,” he explains, “and I had the data analyzed by the computer. In those days you were not allowed to touch the machine yourself, but I had made up the punch cards for programming. Then, at Harvard Medical School, and at the Salk Institute, I used computers all the time in my research. But when I became a full-time writer I really didn’t have access to computers for a long time. In 1977, I got an Olivetti word-processor, and have been writing my books on it ever since. I find that it takes away all the mechanical problems of writing and allows you to concentrate on the quality of the prose.”