My computer is beside me in bed when I wake up, its aluminum case grown cold beneath the flannel covers. Its frozen clock reads 5:16 a.m.—hours after I’d fallen asleep, a sign it had remained in some insomniac limbo for a few hours before deciding it was safe to go to sleep too.
As I spiral my finger around the trackpad, imagining the frozen mouse cursor mirroring my movements during the three seconds it takes for the computer to give me control over itself again, I can hear my roommate having sex in the other room. The computer’s clock finally unfreezes. I think I’m 40 years old for a few seconds, before I remember I’m 38.
I’ve begun to think that the most important relationship in my life is with my computer. I’ve had five overall, each several times more powerful than the last, all of which have served a single purpose: offering a fantasy of encyclopedic competence in every form of productivity I had ever learned to conceive of, from bookkeeping and correspondence to film editing and music composition. An inarticulate slip of the finger over the trackpad could open a PDF of my college transcript or an unfinished composition I’d spent a few months working on for the soundtrack of a video game.
Owning a new computer never seems to satisfy the desire for one. It’s like committing to a different arranged marriage every few years out of a belief in the institution itself rather than any potential partner. They induce a hopefulness that’s out of step with their day-to-day use. Computers assume a basket of needs in their users and offer them productive mechanisms for meeting each, a simulated mini-society made of components capable of working in concert for a greater good. The user’s life becomes an uncanny abstraction that mirrors the corporatist social model—the unifying spirit in whom all the fragmented applications, most of which have no connection to one another, cohere in a meaningful flow of productivity. Users are encouraged to make a category error, confusing symmetrical productivity with personal flourishing.
The care that one gives to one’s computer feels like displaced physical care, a cathartic exercise that produces measurable results.
Before I could afford a computer of my own, I wanted one because the work it advertised as possible—creative output trimmed of all its messy loose threads and redline redos by automation—seemed a way to participate, to lose the anxious weight of unproductivity that being young and barely employed brought on. Acquiring a computer was an emotional enlistment process that exchanged the particular aspects of creative work for a uniformity in which one common interface became sufficient for every productive task, while the body became the awkward inefficiency at the helm, the imprecise keystroke, the sweaty finger gumming up the trackpad, the porous lexicon that cannot understand what exactly a Windows installer error 1450 is. Rather than view these failures as flaws in machine design—or a fundamental failure of imagination in its inventors—there is a narcissistic comfort in finding you are the flaw in the system and that the corrective is both tactile and minutely logical.
There is a workaround for your fat fingers and your creeping sense of dread about the surplus productivity stored in your uneducated body: You can chip away at both by using mouse and keys to sculpt a million different objects, a tax return or a Photoshopped hallucination, an essay, a PowerPoint slideshow for a business proposal, a song composed of loops layered on one another to form a kaleidoscopic super rhythm around an unplanned melody that supersedes anything you might have consciously written. The serendipity of an emerging superstructural logic adds beauty or efficiency to whatever work you meant to do; it becomes a commodity of its own, accessible on demand.
The transistors, screens, keyboards, and clickpads of computers create an erotics of computation, an input-output loop that conjures a mirage of alterity made operable through the molded plastics and glass. The uniform repetitions necessary for operating these machines—the subtle caresses of fingertip, the unthinking memory of the keystroke—made the superstructural feel intimate, almost loving, something you could touch and take as your own.
In Action in Perception, philosopher Alva Noë argues that vision and touch are inextricably linked—that visual perception makes sense, so to speak, only when it can be related to physical movement and the muscle memory that drives it. Shape, distance, color, depth are all rooted in a sense for movement through space and boundaries that begin with the perimeter of the skin and the muscles that move it.
“To perceive,” Noë writes, “is (among other things) to learn how the environment structures one’s possibilities of movement and so it is, thereby, to experience possibilities of movement and action afforded by the environment.” This relationship—the conjuring of a visual sense of the world as an accreted mass of moving sense memories—helps explain perceptual mysteries like the natural blind spot humans have in their peripheral vision, where blood vessels cover a small part of the retina’s photoreceptors. Humans nonetheless experience sight as a unified whole, unseeing the absence that is constantly present through a process that does not rely on constant visual stimulus.
Our perception of the world as a visual space is not a direct continuous reflection of some reality that surrounds us but a continual projection of what we expect based on our previous experiences of it. As experimental psychologist John Kevin O’Regan argues in “Solving the ‘Real’ Mysteries of Visual Perception: The World as an Outside Memory,” a smeared array of visual stimuli coheres into a continuous dimensional experience of the world, a model that exists in our mind and constantly updates itself through perceiving minute differences in specific objects or locations, rather than by fully absorbing an entire image.
When we see the world, O’Regan writes, we see it less as a total picture of what is around us than as an externalized memory store—the world outside our mind is just an animated mass of reference points for the things we can’t always keep in our consciousness. The role of vision, then, is not to present our brains with everything out there, but “to extract just a sufficient number of cues from this external memory store so that objects can be discriminated from each other and so that manipulation of objects and locomotion are possible.” That is, sight operates not as a way of taking in what surrounds us but as a way of determining what forms of actions or movements we might make in it. Touch becomes the bridge between our internalized model of the world and external reality, both the method through which we perceive and the expression of our perception. We see, in other words, what we can do.
If our sense of the world is as a symbolic storehouse of all our movements in it—both the grand muscular gestures of an outstretched limb and the unconscious millisecond movement of an eye in its socket—then computers depict the world as a collection of possible operations and actions newly detached from our sensorimotor perception. In place of consciousness through motion, computers operate on a model of consciousness that is merely neurological, pegged not to the triangular interdependence of brain, body, and environment but the patterns of neuronal manipulation and response that produce a new sense of reality defined through semiotic exchange. These two levels of consciousness are twinned, but they don’t necessarily cooperate.
Our bodies become inefficient excess with no productive relation to the elegant simplicity of the swipe of a screen.
Through the repetitive gestures of computer interfaces, we experience a kind of second childhood during which we relearn with uncanny wonderment that three taps of the glass is all it takes to summon a prepaid car to our exact location—the same three taps that make a favorite song play or video-call a grandparent on their birthday.
But these disparate outcomes are no longer distinguished by the kind of action necessary to bring them about. Instead we develop an ability to somehow visualize different outcomes stemming from a limited repertoire of outwardly indistinguishable gestures. Our bodies, and the bodies of others, become secondary objects, inefficient excess with no productive relation to the elegant simplicity of the swipe of a screen.
Before I had enough money to own my own computer, I kept photos of friends around me everywhere: drunken college roommates just beginning adulthood, grandparents at garden parties, lovers in grainy night-bursts of light. Now my photo library is almost all of myself, taken from my computer’s screen-mounted camera, an animated timeline of changing hair and glasses and skin tone, dingy furniture in the background, eyes always seeming to look at something outside the frame. Pressing the back or forward arrow keys, the small spring on the other side pushes back ever so slightly, a mechanized reflection of my own finger pressure that sometimes feels like another hand gently pressing mine.
A narrative logic joins each of these images, threading the memories of what prompted each picture of myself—an afternoon working at a friend’s house, a bored workday interrupted by vanity. Over time, these little histories are almost unseeable behind my searching return to the same basic posture, the same curious, uncertain gaze, attempting to find a pose that has something more in it that I didn’t consciously intend to be there. Just as the serendipity of superstructure emerges from overlaid audio loops, I assumed a pattern would emerge from the duplication of my face over time, revealing the limitations of my conscious control over my expressions and posture while assuring me that a broader operation was at work that I could glimpse, if not guide.
The constancy of the input mechanism in this process, the simple repeating depression of the key or the mouse pad, assures me of a border between the act (a button pressed, a self-image captured or changed) and the interpretive regime that will eventually take possession of it.
In a 2015 interview with Elle, cultural critic Fran Lebowitz lamented the elevation of novelty above refinement in fashion, the infinite variety of “$2 T-shirts that fall apart in the wash.” She feared that the overwhelming choices made possible by low-cost abstractions—each accessible by a minimal input of a keystroke or an almost entirely mental curation of semiotic props—have eroded the idea of selfhood: People “never learn who they are because they never learn to take care of anything.”
Instead, we never stop learning who we might become, by constantly tucking and tugging the hems of what is either a “good look” or “not a good look.” We never stop working out a “me IRL” that no one has ever actually met, affirming that the essential self-aggrandizing fantasy is that no one has ever really met us, recognized us as we truly are. It is others, and the entire world they constitute, that’s been wrong, and we are right. The world is false, and the self is true. The computer is what brings them into constant contact with each other.
The care that one gives to one’s computer feels like displaced physical care: the patient untangling of power cords and headphone cables as dutiful and thankless as unknotting a child’s hair, the profusion of phone cases and laptop cozies, the intermittent screen wipes like scraping away caked snot from a kid’s lip before a family photo, the automatic monitoring of temperature and wheezing as it dozes in your lap, a hand on a pre-feverish forehead, ears searching for the rattle of phlegm. Caring for a computer excites a constant physical anxiety that feels like a concession, a cathartic exercise that produces measurable results.
This is unlike gestures of self-care, which dissolve into the uncertainty of placebos and co-factors: the shot of apple cider vinegar in the morning, the nightly jog, the weekly trip to yoga, the extra time spent in the bathroom, the sautéed kale and raw-cinnamon-dusted apples, the plaque-cleansing oatmeal. These could work exactly as intended and still miss the first clusters of pancreatic cancer. After an unexpected layoff and a long march through a corridor of failed job interviews, they could slowly come to seem like hopeful vanities in the face of depleted savings and immanently expiring unemployment insurance.
These sorts of unspoken anxieties about station and self are properties of modernity, a reaction to the strange new spaces that modern productivity and social arrangements opened up. In American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History, Tom Lutz points to neurologist George M. Beard’s 1881 book on the then-new diagnosis of neurasthenia, in which the unproductive use of a person’s energy led to a wide range of debilitating conditions, from insomnia and chronic headaches to epilepsy and drunkenness. The neurasthenia diagnosis, Lutz notes, functioned “as a ‘cultural space’ in which individuals negotiate their personal relations to change, and at times their relation to stability.” Consequently, the idea of stability came to be defined as its opposite: The only stable position within modern industry was as an agent of change, someone whose labor was driving the body of history forward. Everything else was personal failure, an immoral waste of energy and creativity that manifested itself in telltale discomforts.
Neurasthenia was a kind of overcompensation for modernity by which sufferers unconsciously disassociated themselves bodily from the changing cultural conditions they found themselves in. The proposed treatments for it were the symptoms inverted: vigorous activity for the depressed person; rest for the overactive; isolation for the obsessive socialite; forced sodality for the recluse. These treatments were designed, according to Lutz, “not in response to a specific pathology but in response to ideas of a man’s or woman’s ‘place.'”
The rigid logical structures of computers likewise demand behavior that is categorically placed. Our interactions with them require sensorimotor action be similarly disassociated from spatial perception in a way that becomes almost therapeutic. We turn to computers as if to unburden ourselves of the urge to physically react to the uncertainty and dysfunction of our surroundings. We intuit that our lives must have some larger systemic structure to them, and yet as lone conduits axiomatically cut off from a view that would make it possible to see what that shape should be, we gravitate toward computation like batter oozing into a cake mold.
In Addiction by Design, Natasha Dow Schüll describes the “machine zone,” a contemporary equivalent to the dissociative properties of neurasthenia. This is a secondary reality epitomized by compulsive gamblers’ encounter with slot machines, “a zone of insulation from a ‘human world’ ” that the gambler “experiences as capricious, discontinuous, and insecure.” When interfacing with the machine zone via key depressions and strokes across a frictionless plane, “time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process,” which is just the kind of technological experience that allows one to manage “the kinds of contingencies and anxieties that riddle contemporary American life.”
Those contemporary anxieties are embodied in computers, in the consensus hallucination of signifiers and theoretical systems we presume as facts beyond our control, the perceptual scar tissue of untouchable politics and impossible moralities made material as civic infrastructure and identity consumerism. But computers can also provide relief. Their simulative mathematics, governed by repetitive physical acts like the tapping of a finger 50 or 60 times a minute, present us an illusion of control, reducing the domain in which we can be productive to the machine zone’s uniform set of behaviors that admit no need of social interpretation.
When telephones became pocket computers, driven by a Jobs-ian conception of magic manifested in computational novelties like momentum-based scrolling and auto-complete, users could reach into this machine zone at any time. It no longer required a socially stigmatized pilgrimage to a casino but could be entered on a subway or at family dinner, a micro-sacrament that could offer an unchanging sense of serenity and control in almost any environment, as if one’s surroundings had no bearing on experience.
The interface translates the long-term processes and ministrations of care into its minimalist suite of gestures. Sensorimotor action and spatial perception proceed as if operating in different dimensions. The selection of romantic partners, finding food, communicating with a loved one, sending money from one account to another—these can all be executed through identical micro-movements of fingers interacting with symbolic representations of processes that are happening elsewhere, according to arcane standards and parameters that have no perceptible presence on the screen or in one’s movements.
The units on the screen come to represent an ideal of how things should operate while masking the indifferent and sometimes catastrophically unreliable processes that are only partly represented in the euphonic chimes that accompany one’s inputs—the text sent, the order submitted, the attraction to a potential mate registered. Every various act turns into a discrete, barely perceptible submission to a larger structure outside one’s self, a kind power we imagine must be higher than ourselves to avoid the thought that it isn’t even conscious of our cooperative submissions. It’s aware of us as much as coral is of its crab colonies.
If love is the union between an idea and the effort necessary to enact it, computers render a world in which love is impossible. There’s something familial in the complexity of unsymbolic tasks, something which tempers human wishfulness with the rhythmic prolongation of attention and productive movement. There is love in something as basic as making a pot of rice: rinsing and shaking it, patiently picking out small stones, measuring the water in the right proportion, watching the heat to ensure that the starchy water doesn’t bubble over, and knowing just how soon it goes from perfectly done to a scorched mess.
The branching specificity of care in these processes is erased by computers. They leave their users instead with a newly liberated chasm of time in which anxiety accumulates and disperses in cycles pegged to the identification of desires rather than their fulfillment. The representational world they broadcast drifts toward superlatives against which generalized anxiety can be focused and discharged.
Love loses its qualities as a practice and becomes more commonly recognizable as an absence of neuroses, a calming lack of provocation. Bodies become reassuring proofs of their owner’s digital personas, symbolic ideals of stability that we come to accept as a virtuous antithesis to the oscillations between mental stimulation and emotional relief in screens, overtaking ever-diminishing periods of exploratory action and contemplative inaction in space.
The more alone we are, the more available we are to receive, synthesize, reconceptualize, and ultimately redistribute new concepts that give computer networks their sense of connected vitality. When, at the end of the day, I carry the aluminum shell with me into the rectangular nest of my bed, it feels like going to bed with a whole world that can only be appreciated piece by piece, as indexical content. Just having it near to me is a comfort, touchable in its endlessness through the micro-intimacies of caressed glass and plastic.
Separate from computers, our understanding of the world becomes labored and methodical because it requires some degree of embodied proving. But the computer automates the proofs. It allows us to accelerate the creation of conceptual propositions—Donald Trump is a fascist, Transformers: Age of Extinction is the most American movie ever made, eating red meat maybe doesn’t cause heart disease—by internalizing disembodied logical structures as if they were part of our own musculature.
We crave the massive expansion of companionship in social streams and podcasts and video because it reaffirms our attachment to the device, and the device reaffirms the speculative chasm between our bodies and minds, between history and our special, little selves.
The only real way to feel the weight of your body is to make a limb go numb. The only way to see your self is to trap it off in a medium of dead quanta, the lifeless motion of charged particles through their semiotic cages.
It may turn out that the long-term outcome of capitalism is the destruction of the family construct. Computers will have been a catalyst for this, a tool for wedding oneself to the world inside one’s self without seeming like an antisocial anomaly. In an era of politicized selfies and inescapable struggles for metricized attention, narcissism has become a trigger word. Both the charge and the defense against it have become clichés. The tragedy of Narcissus doesn’t suggest that one shouldn’t be interested in the self’s reflection; it suggests the danger in committing only to self-representations that are easy to appreciate, that are self-seductive. It warns against the fantasy that we can better construct ourselves in isolation than through the perpetual inconclusiveness of human intimacy.
Maybe Castor and Pollux are a better analogy than Narcissus for computational infatuation: These twins had only one share of immortality between them and spent eternity trading places in Heaven and Hades, each foresworn to be apart from the other but unwilling to accept absolute separation. They share elation and anguish in equal measure but never together—the constancy of change becomes its own uncanny medium joining the two. What I am feeling now, he felt too, and what he is feeling now I will feel again tomorrow.
I remember spending a night with my last computer, watching the first-season finale of The Hills. Diane von Fürstenberg tells Lauren Conrad in a light December snowfall not to rush into a reunion with her boyfriend, an Australian model turned guitar player who’d abandoned his band’s tour to win her back. “The most important relationship in your life,” von Fürstenberg said, “is the relationship you have with yourself. Because no matter what happens, you will always be with yourself.” That seemed beautiful to me at the time.
Now, when I make a point of leaving the computer in the living room for a change, I fall asleep wondering what’s happening there without me, excited for sleep to hurry me to the morning, when I’ll find out. I forget my age for a few moments. It feels like I’m trading places with myself, always arriving at places it seemed like I had only just left.