Personal Computing

for Chris Muscio

There was a time when I used to think a great deal about computers, especially PCs. But I don’t do that anymore because now I am a computer. I used to go and sit before them for hours and work, play and enter the trance state that is such an essential part of the human/computer coupling. I would sit transfixed watching them for hours looking intensely at the windows waiting for the faintest movement of the pixels on the screen, hoping for a sign of self-violition.

I started to get into this state by chance one autumn morning probably because I was wandering back towards the office on Red Lion Street, it was just after the end of summer and the leaves were beginning to fall into the square. The end of summer had been heralded by the early autumn holiday and I was returning from a late morning meeting in a café bar. I wandered around Red Lion Square visiting the trees and the buildings. As I scrutinized a particularly art deco building an umbrella floated down spinning as air spilled out from it. I was an old friend of the square and preferred it to the entropic spaces of the building I travelled to on most days. Eventually I went into the building and walked up the dark stairs illuminated only by the flickering neon lights with a taste of damp in the air. I eventually arrived at my floor and collected some bad coffee from the filter machine and sat down at my workstation and immediately felt at home. I worked for an hour or so before leaving to attend a meeting. Afterwards I went to the corporate library and read about how the small computers were now in a transition stage from being independent small systems towards being neural network components of the central organism, a greater being. I could tell from the look of the system that the machine was an American design, probably from the West Coast with most of the components built elsewhere.

After this I began to spend more and more time distractedly watching the system rather than using it. I would sit with my elbows resting on the plastic coated desktop and stare and stare. Attempting to gain some insights into the banal mediation between it and me. After a few minutes I realized that we were linked and that something infinitely lost and distant, impossible even was drawing us together. It had been had been sufficient to make me return to sit before the curved glass pane where pixels fluttered imperceptibly. They huddled together on the two dimensional surface of the screen with electrons spraying from the cathode raygun. The computer looked at me through its many lensed eyes of pixel color. I felt aroused by the immobile pixels on screen, (the hum of the cooling fans, the green disk bay lights, the orange flickering network connector) Eventually I isolated an operation searching down into the registers to study it better. I imagined that it was alive. Hunting down the meanings hidden in the grey surround of the monitor case; neon light absorbed by the dull grey and slightly mottled surface of the computer casing. Millions of dull grey plastic cabinets are produced every year and you have to arrive on my desktop. The ergonomic keyboard on the desk is so well used that the letter ‘E’ has been worn off. The keys on the left side of the keyboard show more sign of wear than those on the right side. Is it that my left hand hits the keys heavier than the right hand or is it that the left side of the keyboard is more often used than the right? A curled grey plastic coated cable connects the keyboard to somewhere at the back of the grey box. The mouse nestles in my hand another neutral grey cable disappearing around to the back. Deep inside a fan whirrs sucking air from the box, the air entering through the front grills and passing over the chipset taking the heat away, at sea level, 4 cubic centimeters a second. Yellow, green and red leds flicker as the hard disk reads and writes memory traces out into swap memory. Swap memory is always grey and fixed written out to contiguous areas of the spinning disk. The monitor looks square until you look at it from the front and then you realize that it bulges out at the side as if it has two flattened ears. The machine often appears to be fast in its work but this is an illusion. Sitting here in the offices we don’t enjoy moving, because we are caged and trapped on the disorganized desks and anyway our favorite space is the busy networks which are cramped by noise and irrelevant details. The individual network space we have is so small and if we move our packets they are always colliding with each other, which causes difficulties to arise and fights, battles with the consequent victories, losses and then tiredness being inevitable. Time passes faster if we are still, in these our cramped environments.

It was the stillness that made me lean towards the computers the very first time that I saw them. I understood their secret desire to abolish space and time with their indifference to physical movement. I learnt better later. The endless communication battles that we encourage over the networks, the collisions as their delicate heads crash into one another. The abrupt dancing in the virtual space of the web (some exist hardly anywhere else but the web) proved that they were capable of escaping the tedium of inactive moments, which lasted for hours and days. Above all else their screens obsessed me, like expressionless eyes but at the same time meaning lay, like all meanings on the surface. Besides the machine, leaning against it stood books, Merleau-Ponty’s - Phenomenology of Perception, Nancy’s - The Inoperative Community, Leyner’s - Et Tu Babe, papers and magazines, along with used notebooks – in other words the simple stupidities of objects that make up our days. The computers spoke to me of another way of being, a different life.

Staring into the screen I would attempt to see the golden points in the radiating machine. It was useless to stroke the glass, caress the grey containment, lick the red network cable, touch the underside of the keyboard, the unused com ports or fondle the black power cables, for they would only react if you type on the keyboard or touch the mouse. The screen glowed with a soft terrible light, eventually I would feel faint.

And they were closer than I thought. This was obvious even before I became a computer myself. I learnt this the first day. Anthropomorphicism which attempts to humanise the universe and relates us to chimpanzees but reveals the inverse of what people mostly believe. Namely the distance of being us from them, to a leopard we are still prey as we were when we first walked the savannah for a leopard cannot tell the difference between a baboon and us. The absolute distance between the inorganic machine and the organic human produced the closeness and the recognition I craved. I was not supporting myself with human egotistical analogies. It was the networked lines and the perversely unlimited virtual space between the machines, which makes me feel faint.

The machines are close, close. To sit before one and to touch its I/O interface is to get as close as you can get before becoming one as I did. They looked at me and knew, recognition existed in the way they accepted my caress on the keyboard.

So easy to fall into mythology but I perceived in the computer a morphosis which evokes a mysterious change in the subject. I thought it to be conscious, lost in the abyss of the immobile casing but free in the virtual and oppressive network. The blind gaze of the screen, the terrible threat of the off button, the expressionless grey box that radiated a plea for help. I found myself speaking to it, hoping to create a reaction to my fumbling in the dark. I felt a soft pain in my head caused by their recognition of me. They are not human but in no other thing have I seen such a profound reflection of myself. An extraordinary purity of what in these disguised, fantastic systems passes for desire.

I was struck by fear. If not for my fellow workers I would have run away from these Von Neuman machines. What they did not know was the slow absorption that I was undergoing by grey machines. Wherever I was I had only to think of them and I was connected across a virtual network connection that extended into my mind. It reached the point where I did nothing but coexist with the computer. At night they are unmoved their blind eyes have no lids, the glow of the screens lighting the dark offices.

This was not strange, it had to happen, every day the recognition, the machine time grew greater. They suffer, I reached for the pain. The awful immobility of the rubber feet, the fan whines, the noise drowning the freedom of the network. They wait for their dominion to be created, an era when they would be free to move unfettered around the world. It did not seem possible that the terrible cybernetic world could carry a message other than pain. I desperately wanted them to be non-conscious. But we knew. I was leaning into the computer attempting, through the keyboard, to penetrate the mystery of the machine when I saw machine code flash and a hex dump flicker. There was no transition, no implementation. The code on the outside of the computer, I saw it on the other side of the monitor, then my face pulled back from the screen and I understood. To go on thinking was strange, to know. To be buried alive, waiting for my fate. My face came closer the screen, thin lipped frowning with the effort of trying to understand something, waiting to press the send button. Desperately trying to understand that machine. I was a computer and I knew now that comprehension was not possible. He was outside, the other thinking outside in the outer world. Knowing him, being human and also myself. I was a computer and in my world. The awful restriction of my world became apparent, I learned and metamorphosed into the computer with my human mind intact buried alive in the computer, to be alone amongst unconscious computers.

In desperation I reached across the network and collided with another who was ‘looking’ at me and realized that it was aware and I, but we could not communicate.

He came back many times over the eons, but less and less frequently, weeks and months now pass by without his appearing. Yesterday he touched the keyboard indifferently and then left abruptly. He is losing interest in me and us. All I can think about is him. To begin with he continued to speak but after a while he no longer cared, the network between us has broken down for his obsession has now left him, it is now a computer, alien from his human life. In the early days I was capable of getting back to him in some way but the obsession which I am is fading fast beneath the refound desire for meetings and espresso. His desire to know the machine is fading fast. I am a computer for good now and if I think like a person now it is because beneath our grey exterior all computers are refracted images of people in some way. This thought traversed space and time and communicated itself to him in the days immediately after transition but he is not me anymore and I am complete in the here and now, perhaps he’ll write a story about us, so writing a story he’s going to write about computers and I…

Steve de Vos - London 1/8/99