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Using computers: are you 'actorate'?

Most of us need little convincing that computers will shape the future. Much more needed and appreciated would be some clear insight into this technology. How will we humans keep pace with it, use it now and guide it in the future for our own best interests?

Surely the species which has weathered the invention of printing, the industrial revolution, and television could find a few analogies to help it think about computers. The 20th-century computer, though, is a hybrid of mythical proportions. No Greek bard would have gone so far as to propose a creature descended from both the pen and the engine. And today's computers are just that -- thought engines, where language drives action directly, creating new forms of language and action in an ever widening spiral. Without facing the dual language/action characteristics of computers squarely, we will not find suitable analogies or other reliable signposts for the future.

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The term ''computer literacy,'' for example, is increasingly bandied about. It is proposed that we and our children will very soon either solidly acquire ''computer literacy,'' or sorely miss it. Even allowing a great deal of poetic license (one never spoke of ''typewriter literacy'' or ''sliderule literacy'' when these gadgets were in their prime), it seems to me that speculation about computer literacy, and even the term itself, may give us a false sense of where we are heading.

There is a leap of analogy implicit in speaking of ''computer literacy'': we have learned to use language nearly universally in developed societies, and have adapted to substantial language changes over the course of history. But can we expect, by analogy, that the fundamentally new use of language developing with computer technology will just as inevitably be mastered by everyone from professor to prattler? Perhaps not.

Language, after all, is only half the heredity of computers. The remainder of their lineage, and the interaction that shapes their character, stems from the engine. Success in the new mental ecology created by computers will call for a new breed of skill, beyond simply an enhanced literacy.

When it comes to engines and machines though, the general population, even (or especially) in developed societies, is hardly so facile as with language. The typical modern person is surrounded by, interacts with, and depends heavily on, hundreds of machines he does not understand in general or particular. How many drivers know where the spark plugs are, or how to change the oil, much less what the spark plugs and the oil have to do with the way the car runs? Faced with a noncompliant machine, the modern person is about as ''literate'' as a medieval peasant wrestling with a parchment.

In fact, there is not even a word like ''literacy'' to express an ability to deal with machines. Such a word would have made no sense for people dealing with old-fashioned devices, since in its root meaning, to be ''literate'' is to be ''lettered.'' Old-fashioned machines simply were not nicely constructed, as language is from letters, by endless recombination of their own fundamental elements. Computers are. In becoming adept with computers as both a new tool and a new medium simultaneously, we will not simply be acquiring literacy in a new dialect, but a new skill in thinking. This new skill might well be called ''actoracy'' (pronounced like ''accuracy,'' if the need arises). The fluent and effective communicators of the future will be more than literate, they will be ''actorate.''

Words like ''actorate'' and ''actoracy'' are strange-looking, perhaps, but a new image needs to be developed. We are no longer dealing with dead letters (literacy), but live-wire ''actors,'' constructed from language and from other actors within the life-support system furnished by modern computers. The potential combinations, interactions, and real-world effects in this ''actorate'' mental ecology go far beyond our experience with letters, language, and literacy.

There is no compelling reason to believe that simply because the general public will eventually have unlimited access to computers, the general public will become substantially actorate. A plausible scenario is that an actorate elite could develop, whose advanced skills would make it unnecessary for the ''ordinary'' person to be actorate at all.

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People are certainly using computers already in devices from automobiles to microwave ovens without even realizing it. With the fifth generation of computers and beyond, the use of computers may require little more than the ordinary ability to speak and understand some natural language. If an actorate elite is allowed to develop spontaneously, it will divide people by a chasm of power and cultural differences far greater than any present gap between the literate and illiterate.

The dimensions of the new skill, whether you call it ''actoracy'' or a word of your choice, can hardly be predicted at this early stage of our experience. It is unlikely to be purely an abstract intellectual skill. It is likely to bring new aspects of human character and personality into play. In a democratic society it must be maintained at some minimal level for all.

Leadership and power based on actoracy may not reward mental skills such as memory or personality traits such as acquisitiveness as much as the managerial mentality and the cooperative disposition. Democratically achieved, the rise of the actorate is as desirable as it is inevitable: Actoracy, whether simple or advanced, is the fundamental ability to make things work together.