Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers

Cover - Electronic Life by Michael Crichton

Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers
By Michael Crichton
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1983
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0394534069
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0394534060

“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 them.”


In His Own Words:

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.

Plot Synopsis:

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 them. 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.

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In 1983, Crichton wrote Electronic Life, a book that introduces BASIC programming to its readers. The book, written like a glossary, with entries such as “Afraid of Computers (everybody is)”, “Buying a Computer”, and “Computer Crime”, was intended to introduce the idea of personal computers to a reader who might be faced with the hardship of using them at work or at home for the first time. It defined basic computer jargon and assured readers that they could master the machine when it inevitably arrived. In his words, being able to program a computer is liberation: “In my experience, you assert control over a computer—show it who’s the boss—by making it do something unique. That means programming it. … If you devote a couple of hours to programming a new machine, you’ll feel better about it ever afterward.” In the book, Crichton predicts a number of events in the history of computer development, that computer networks would increase in importance as a matter of convenience, including the sharing of information and pictures that we see online today which the telephone never could. He also makes predictions for computer games, dismissing them as “the hula hoops of the ’80s”, and saying “already there are indications that the mania for twitch games may be fading.” In a section of the book called “Microprocessors, or how I flunked biostatistics at Harvard”, Crichton again seeks his revenge on the teacher who had given him abnormally low grades in college. Within the book, Crichton included many self-written demonstrative Applesoft (for Apple II) and BASICA (for IBM PC compatibles) programs.


About the Author:

After graduating from Harvard Medical School, Michael Crichton embarked on a career as a writer and filmmaker, whose credits include ‘The Andromeda Strain’, ‘Westworld’, ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Rising Sun’, ‘Prey’ and ‘State of Fear’ and the TV series ‘ER’. He has sold over 150 million books which have been translated into thirty-six languages; twelve have been made into films. He is the only person to have had, at the same time, the number one book, movie and TV show in the United States. [Amazon]

Webmaster’s Note:

  • I bought this book years ago but hadn’t read it until recently, in September of 2021. My first exposure to computers was in high school in 1977. My school had a tele-type hook-up with a main frame at U.C. Santa Barbara. We learned rudimentary BASIC in a computer class. Looking back now much of what Crichton writes is very dated, but that’s not the point. My point is that it’s been fun to look back to the early 1980s and get a sense of where things were then. Much about computers and computing has obviously changed since then. Some of the attitudes that Crichton mentions are as applicable now as they were then. He makes predictions, many of which seem to me to be fairly prescient. He takes care, it seems to me, to not predict too far into the future, staying in a ten-year frame. Overall I enjoyed reading this book and suggest you might also.