Though Turkle refrains, in her introductions and conclusions, from handing down judgments on biomechanical relationships, she includes many essays that revisit this theme of cyborgish machine-reliance. This is where the books become most intimate and most interesting. I had never before understood the creepy, visceral mechanics of dialysis, or the constant low-level worry implicit in the daily life of a diabetic, but in chapters about dialysis machines and glucometers, these details–small, precise, harrowing–shone in a way they wouldn’t have in any other context. A women’s or general-interest magazine might publish a triumphalist narrative about “My Battle with Diabetes,” but by exploring, plain fact by plain fact, his daily intimacy with a glucometer, Joseph Cevetello writes meaningfully about his disease without moralizing. His glucometer is both savior and scold, and he both treasures its utility and resents his dependence on it. Ultimately it’s just an inescapable part of his life, simultaneously as incidental and as rich with selfness as a whorl of freckles or a scar.
I am not the first, of course, to endow a computer with power beyond its technical utility. In Objects, tech writer Annalee Newitz writes about how her early experiences with the Internet were colored by romance, with the result that even now, “computers make me think of love.” This was one of the only essays in these collections that I felt was a retread: “On the Fringes of the Physical World,” Meghan Daum’s tragicomic, marvelously egoless account of her disappointment when an intense virtual love affair failed to translate into meatspace, covered the same territory without coming to such neat conclusions about the “community” and the “sharing” that Newitz says infuse computer nerds’ dreams of unselfish, reciprocally beneficial, perfect love. But there were aspects of the laptop essay that spoke to my own love, born of intense familiarity, for my old computer’s physicality. “I would recognize the feel of its keyboard under my fingers in a darkened room,” Newitz writes. Check.
Turkle says that this kind of mechanical attachment instructs us in something important–maybe essential–about being human. Objects, she says, are locations where messy clouds of feelings can coalesce and take on form. My old computer, per this way of thinking, is less a machine for going online than it is a haunted relic, polished by the daily attentions of a supplicant and filled with a mystical energy that certainly doesn’t come from its battery (which, by the way, is so shot that I must always keep the stupid thing plugged in, a real café liability). I can transfer my files, but I can’t transfer my feelings to my new machine, at least not immediately. Instead, I plan to keep doing what I’m doing, though it makes no sense–using both laptops a little each day, hoping to eventually build up enough of an attachment to the new one to wean myself off its filthy, sluggish predecessor completely.
This elaborate, illogical way of coping with emotional and physical dependency on a machine makes sense to Turkle, who concludes Objects by envisioning a cyborg future when computers will stop just feeling like part of our bodies and start actually being them. “As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundaries between the born and created and between humans and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories,” she writes. These books, inconsistent and dorky as they can be, are where that kind of storytelling starts.
Emily Gould blogs at Emilymagazine.com. Her first book of essays will be published by Free Press in early 2010.