Fans of humour columnist Dave Barry recognise him as the guy who can find hilarity in such topics as Comet Hyakutake, Beach Boys lyrics and methane-engorged cattle. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, whose column is syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, is also a laptop-toting technoid-in-training. In fact, his 17th book, Dave Barry in Cyberspace, will no doubt do for our understanding of technology what Rush Limbaugh has done for rational debate in the US. IDG's Paul Gillin recently caught up with Barry and his Toshiba Protege in New York, where the author was shamelessly promoting his recent book Dave Barry's Guide to Guys.
Barry distinguishes men from guys thus: Christopher Columbus was a man. Whichever astronaut hit the first golf ball on the moon was a guyIDG: Do you think computers are funny?
BARRY: They're a lot like cars. You always want a new and faster one, but you don't know for what. Like, I don't know what RAM is, but I know I need a lot. They're funny until you suddenly discover they just locked up, 500 words into an 800-word column, and you haven't saved. Then they're not funny; they're tools of Satan. Really, Satan will come through the wire, and sometimes you'll actually see your monitor spin around like in The Exorcist.
IDG: Do you think they make people more productive?
BARRY: Yes, but there's a steep learning curve. There are a lot of people who get the computer and end up diddling with it for the rest of their careers. We have guys like that at the Miami Herald. They used to be functioning, practical reporters, and they mutate . . . from journalists into computer people. Windows is a great tool for them. It offers you so many things to do that aren't productive. You can not only change the screen colours, but the icon size and typeface . . . all the things that have nothing to do with writing.
IDG: If you were in gym class with Bill Gates, what would you do with him?
BARRY: I'm sure what all his other friends did: hang him upside down over the toilet. Wouldn't it be funny if it turned out that when Bill was in high school, he was a big jock and a stud muffin? I don't think that's likely, though. At Comdex, he was like Elvis. In fact, in my book, I have a part called "Elvis in the Desert". He was huge.
IDG: What was Comdex like for you?
BARRY: Mars. At one point . . . I'm carrying this 800-pound bag of literature, and this woman with a pretty much translucent blouse comes up to me and gets right in my face and goes, "Client/server?" I don't even know what that is. And I'm one of those people who likes to go into CompUSA and just look at stuff. To be in a place where people were way beyond where I was, I felt almost normal.
I was struck by the high level of greed. I thought it was going to be more people into the coolness of computers. I didn't realise that everyone wants to be Bill Gates. I read about this Netscape guy who's 11 months old, and he's worth $100 trillion.
But I did think it was interesting that this event so devoted to avoiding the confines of the physical world is held in a place where you cannot get a cab unless you have a machine gun.
IDG: Your recent book is about guys. Which is a guy's computer: the PC or the Macintosh?
BARRY: No question. The PC is a guy's computer because you have to screw around with it and hop it up. With a Mac, you buy this wonderful, functional thing out of the box, but somebody else got to do all the hard stuff. What fun is that? Give me a computer you have to wrestle with, and that's a guy's PC.
IDG: Our readers are computer-savvy; are they guys?
BARRY: Oh, definitely. The computer world is guy-infested. It's one of the fields where you can be relentlessly immature and still be highly successful. How you present yourself personally is irrelevant. I mean, look at Bill Gates. Being a suave, smooth salesperson isn't important.
IDG: Do you ever worry about your son being on the Internet as much as he is?
BARRY: No, I don't. I have the same attitude about television or movies or books. To me, that's all learning, and I trust him to figure out what's right and wrong. I'm sure he sees X-rated stuff, and any parent who thinks their child doesn't is deluded. The important thing is that when he sees something sick, he knows that it's sick.
IDG: Do you have any opinion on the US Communications Decency Act?
BARRY: I think it's stupid and a waste of time and money. Kids are learning to make bombs on the Internet? Well, the same thing has been available on paper for a long time. It's ridiculous to pick this particular medium just because it's the most publicised one.
Can you imagine if the government had regulated the Internet from the start? "We hope that by the year 2007 we'll be able to show you pictures, just as soon as we get approval from the House Agriculture Subcommittee."
IDG: Would you share your e-mail address?
BARRY: No! Somebody once printed it in a book, and I got hundreds of messages a day, all of which came down to "Are you really Dave Barry?" And if I said yes, they said, "No, you're not".