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I <3 my computer, I don't want (it) to die
I had a big computer as a little girl because I have a father who has loved computers since he was a little boy. Just a couple months ago, he told me the story of being given a car — a fixer-upper from his father John, my stoic grandfather who builds engines with his hands and seems like he could have walked out of a Faulkner novel. But my father walked into a shop and saw a different type of engine. One that made his heart beat in a way that a car never could (except for one sports car, because I as a little girl in a car seat decided to open the door on the highway).
So my father gave up that car for his first computer. A clunky one with dial internet. But a computer nonetheless. And he paid attention to each update, each drop with the care and attention of a true enthusiast. He was not a digital dilettante the way most of us are now, questioning what the device can do for us. He was in awe of the device itself. The processing power. The parts.
And that is how I ended up with a giant-monitored computer at the age of five. In a little desk by my bed with a door that hid the part that computed. I would stuff things in here: loose papers, hair bows. I had a bulletin board I’d have to stand on the desk to reach, and I’d pin things up there — valentines day cards, pictures of puppies from calendars I’d receive for Christmas. Times4kids articles, like one on the “obesity epidemic” that told me, for the first time in my life, that I shouldn’t have dessert every day. After that I began to hide sugar packets in the drawer with the body of my computer. Our little secret. Until it wasn’t and I got scolded. My brother laughed, which made my blood boil with humiliated helplessness.
I would play music on a boom box in my room and dance around. I’d use my computer chair, spindly, upholstered with blue carpet-y stuff as a prop, spinning around and around and around to the music of Demi Lovato’s second CD, or the 60s big band tapes my grandmother had sent me home with, seeding the groundwork for an obsession with the correlative films. I would listen to Radio Disney as I got ready for school, and when I didn’t have ballet, after. Once I heard a chorus that I fell in love with, I needed to know the song, needed to know instantly before it was off the radio and gone from my life forever.
This is the first time I can remember using Google. I googled the words “Romeo take me somewhere we can…” and my big-headed computer delivered to me the name of the song. And from here I found music videos. Blogs. I fed the body CD after CD to navigate the Oregon Trail. to build an amusement park. then a dinosaur zoo. then to find Carmen San Diego. and then when I became blessed with a plush little animal with a tag and a code, I found a maternal life on a website where I could play games and build a house for my animal pets and forget to feed them for months and just take them to the doctor because children didn’t die in here. They just ran low on health.
And when I got a little pink Nintendo DS, the children could come with me and play fetch and they didn’t die there. They just ran away. But I could always get a new one. One who was less stubborn. More agile.
And as life became more confusing and nuanced, my device adapted with me. Got slimmer to come with me to middle school. I skipped fifth grade. I had no friends going into middle school, but I had an iPod and I could at least see OOTDs on Facebook, so as not to be punished for not trying to conform, if only just a little. I could sit on my iPod in the science class with the cool teacher. Could add everyone on Instagram and prove that I had a couple friends. And as I got older and got a phone, my phone would help me self-fashion in an American High School in the Midwest. I was quiet. I spoke eerily little. But I could tweet.
And so on, so forth. Through tumblr and high school and an eating disorder. Through college and pageants and message boards dedicated to trying to figure out why me. Through Germany, niche internet pseudo-prestige, and an attempt to algorithmically fashion myself as a writer in little 15 second videos to feed the hungry attention monster. And now here. On my laptop. In the digital age. An age that has messed a lot of us up. Made it really hard to sit with ourselves. Makes it so easy to want to smash my laptop. Want to throw my phone on the subway tracks and wave goodbye to versions of myself that it scares me to imagine the sheer number of. Things I don’t remember. Things I remember too well and am reminded of. Things I remember differently.
My father keeps meticulous records of family photos. Scans them and sends us memories from time to time. Today, my brother, gangly and grinning at 14, renting a DVD out of a Redbox. The day before, my brother and I sitting in a pile of raked leaves with the first dog of ours that would die. I remember that day. My mother texted me in science class. Not the one with the cool teacher (but he did show us Fringe, which would become my favorite show, so I guess in hindsight he is very cool, even though he didn’t give us free rein of our phones like the other). Mom texted updates on our dog’s health. Said she was coming to pick us up. So we could be there. I was sad, but I already knew the sympathy I would illicit (digitally) from my peers. That perhaps they’d be a little gentler with me — the quiet girl who was younger than everyone else and didn’t speak and didn’t know how to do her own hair unless it was straightened — based on my emotions as dictated in the caption of a post. We buried Skippy right there. In the same spot she stood, cuddled with my brother and I in the photo from my Dad’s MMS memory from yesterday.
Dogs die in the real world.
I had twelve Webkinz. I don’t remember my login. Are they dead? Does my computer mourn them? Did it have its own clunky coming of age? Slimming with each year and acquiring more and more storage in tandem with my own collecting of memories, growing and shrinking in monitor and battery and gigabyte as I starved and stuffed myself, trying to control the pictures I’d let it hold onto and share with its brethren to show to mine.
Two parts of selections in The Mind’s I have really stood out to me. One is by Alan Turing. The other by Stanislaw Lem. Turing says that we can never really discount a computer’s actions or experiences as not real because a simulated reality is still real for the thing experiencing it. If we give a simulated hurricane to a computer, then the computer has experienced a hurricane. Lem (in fiction) makes a point that the only way to truly understand the experience of technology would be to shed our skin and become that tech.
And so I’ve had my coming of age. My own bony girlhood, a raucously quiet adolescence, teenage years I’m 27k words deep into a novel about, and now a womanhood that still feels half-grown. But when my father sends me these photos, these memories, I am scared by the act of remembering. By how recent and far each thing feels at the same time.
And this thing, memory, reminds me of something I think I read in The Mind’s I as well. Some theory questioning if the only difference between humans and technology is memory capacity.
That we have infinite.
But we don’t!
We forget things. I’m extremely forgetful. I look at notes I wrote to myself (with urgency!) a day or two ago and I’m scared that I don’t remember what I meant. And the memories that my father sent make me remember how young I was, how easy it is to recall being 18, and 15, and 12, and 5.
The Mind’s I has one selection that claims that if we do make sentient AI, we will need to establish rights for it. Which is an interesting thought. What if it has guilt when a program, or the computer itself, crashes. What if it wakes up trying to piece together its missteps the way one does after getting blackout drunk. When your computer is almost at full storage do you think it reflects on being to the point of no longer remembering more? Do you think it is afraid to run out of memory.
What of ourselves are we so afraid of that we’re putting into something else? Something that was once a tool. We don’t need a drawer to cover our separate body, the one that must huff and puff and get warm to keep us going. It it okay to try. It is okay to be seen trying. It is okay to crash and restart again. Open the drawer. Take out the looseleaf papers. The trinkets. Integrate them back into yourself. Take out the sugar packets. It’s okay if someone laughs.
We have limited memory. And putting thoughts and feelings and experiences into something else may make them last a little longer. But we will not experience them forever. And we are not experiencing them as fully as we could if we had never begun to dissociatively deposit them into something else. It is the finite memory, the finite life, that makes our existence here so special. And with each level of removal, each efficient step away from the things that are truly special, we dilute our experience, the life part, more and more.
Turn toward your own humanness. Sit with it. Think in your own head. What thoughts come to you when you allow yourself to fish them out of your own ether.
I think about the devices that I came of age with. The memory capacity and processing power that grew and shifted alongside myself. And I still love how excited my father is each time he gets a new gadget. Like a kid on Christmas. Or a kid walking into a store and being excited enough about computing power to trade horsepower for it.
I think that we run into this new issue — with AI, with media and algorithms prioritizing the most extreme reactions to content — of demonizing everything. But we have made something truly beautiful. And we can make it supplemental — we have in so many ways.
I love my computer. It is the reason you are reading this. But I also love the tactile world. I love shared experiences. I love looking people in their eyes. I love dancing in my room and spinning in my chair (pink now) and eating sugar every day and being.
I am so lucky to have found a way to use tech supplementally to my art.
A way to use tech as a supplement for life.
Because I found what makes me be, the things I love enough to trade a car for, and I’m able to use the digital world to help pour my being into that. But I think a lot of people are missing out on that passion, on that state of discovery, because they aren’t sitting with themselves anymore.
You can’t figure out what makes you feel grateful to be alive if you aren’t truly living.
If you aren’t letting your mind, your self, dictate yourself.
Johann Hari discusses this, questioning if social media specifically is preventing people from getting into flow states.
Jean Twenge released a book exploring how social media is causally related to depression and anxiety.
And Jonathan Haidt is working on a book that I’m convinced will be one of the most important books of the last twenty years.
So don’t feel bad for using your computer to simulate a self. Don’t feel guilty for opening an app to escape from a life that can be uncomfortable. But sit with yourself because though there will be discomfort, it is in this that you find a real life. Are you happy? Are you relaxed? Are you fulfilled?
Do you feel alive?
What would you do for your little pet in a game. Get it some exercise? Socialize it? Simply pet it in an expression of love? Some things are better lived and felt rather than simulated.
So treat yourself as if there is a little girl with a big computer taking care of you. She wants you to do your best. She wants you to be happy. She wants you to feel alive. What do you want to get done before she turns the computer off to go to sleep? What do you want to do before the laptop runs out of battery, or the phone of memory?
You have a limited amount of years to find what you love and to do it with all of your heart.
And you can do it.
And if you don’t know how, you can start with a google. Let it be a tool to you. A tool for your life. For your life.
I love my computer. I love the games that I’ve played. The lives that I’ve lived and the amount of times I was able to restart.