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Computing

Our Own Devices

Why we love the machines we shouldn’t.

A little less than a month ago, I bought a new MacBook. I’m sure it’s superior to my five-year-old G4 in hundreds of ways that I will never know or care enough to appreciate, but so far I’ve only managed to notice that it’s … not the same. Typing is more slippery–there’s none of that reassuring vestigial typewriterish resistance behind the barely raised letters and numbers. Both shift keys are intact, the screen isn’t smeary, and the whole apparatus isn’t encrusted with crumbs and cat hair. There’s a built-in camera so I can (entertain the horrifying prospect of engaging in) video chat with friends and loved ones. No one has yet photographed this computer to illustrate a magazine story about, like, “Bloggers: What’s Up with That?” When I use it to access the Internet, there are no effortful whirring sounds, no spinning wheels, no hesitations. I never have to force-quit half the programs I have open in order to make one of the others work. Really, it should be no problem at all–really, I should be eager–to transfer my music and documents and programs to my new computer so I can get the old one out of my life forever.

So why is my old computer still sitting on my bedside table (or, okay, more likely tucked into the covers at the foot of my bed), ready for the ritualistic little online tour of duty that–it pains me to admit–I compulsively make every day, first thing in the morning upon waking and last thing before sleeping? It’s a yellowed husk of its pristine-white former self, tragically hefty-looking next to its slimmer, silver younger sibling. Sure, we’ve been together through good times and bad–and the bad times were bad in a specifically computer-centric way. So much of my life had been spent looking at and touching that machine, and then so much of my life had been spent recording what had happened by looking at and ­touching that machine. The concrete evidence of those experiences can easily be exported to my new machine. After that happens, what remains will bear
as ­little resemblance to the object my fingers have spent the past few years caressing daily as a corpse bears to the living body it used to be. But even once its little mechanical soul has been reincarnated, the physical shell of my old laptop will remain a reminder of all the good things, and all the bad things, I used it to do.

My morbid attachment to my old machine confuses and shocks me, but it probably wouldn’t surprise MIT’s Sherry Turkle, who as a clinical psychologist and a professor of the social studies of science and tech­nology has spent several decades studying and writing about the way mechanical objects construct and complete the self.

In two recent books, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With and The Inner History of Devices, Turkle has invited ethnographers, children, psychiatrists, and a great many “ordinary” people–a disproportionate number of whom seem to be academics–to contribute essays about the most important objects in their and their patients’, students’, and research subjects’ lives, and all the feelings and memories these objects evoke. The essays run the gamut from very analytical to very diaristic. A lot of them are just not very good: the academics, especially, often write about personal things as if they’re composing a college admission essay, and few of the other contributors seem to have understood that there are formal conventions of personal writing beyond “this happened, then that happened.”

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But then there are moments that make the reader realize how valuable Turkle’s project is. In Devices, for example, we learn that some video-poker addicts wear double-layered pants so they don’t have to get up to urinate. They are sometimes surprised to find, after hours of play, that they’ve soiled or vomited on themselves–that’s how immersed they are in the microdecisions that the game requires. And they all use the same language of transport and transformation to describe their relationship with the machine that lulls them into this disembodied trance. “My body was there, outside the machine, but at the same time I was inside the machine, in the king and queen turning over, almost hypnotized into being that machine.” “You’re over there in the machine, like you’re walking around inside it, going around in the cards.” This is where anyone who has ever found it hard to get up from the computer–which by now must be everyone–cringes.

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.

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