Rage against the machine
Why do our lives revolve around the computer?
Author: Patrick Malone
This past summer, I spent several weeks with my laptop hidden in a drawer and the chair at my desk folded up and leaning against the wall. My computer is a tool for following news, for keeping in touch with family, friends, professors, co-workers, and extra-curricular groups; it is where I do most of my homework, both writing and researching; it is what I use in order to look for employment and education opportunities, what I use to follow my hobbies and learn about personal interests, and what I use for entertainment. The white noise of the Internet is ubiquitous to the point that I have next to no idea how I would live without it, without ceaselessly poking my head into the online world, or more likely without allowing the online world to just keep bursting into my life again and again and again spewing random data and swallowing me. I was significantly happier not frittering away the time by looking at (not even really reading?) articles and blogs and threads that barely interested me and which added little to my understanding of the world and following desperately manufactured outrages and bombastic posturing.
I say that the online world bursts into one’s life. I am especially disturbed by how it intrudes upon two of the most personal aspects of life. The first is how it mediates sexuality. For a generation raised on pornography, sexuality is introduced through a screen, and remains within the screen, to the point that there are a myriad of men with anecdotes of how, after watching pornography regularly, they become stimulated by dreaming about viewing explicit images on a screen instead of dreaming about actual sexual contact. They have been conditioned to associate arousal with screens instead of partners. Sexual relations with computers seem to be the topic of science fiction, but they are, for all intents and purposes, occurring now. I propose that for people associating sex with screens, this might explain the interest in sexting intimate partners. Even though physical contact is not only possible, but available, the sexual relationship needs to be experienced as sexuality in general, first. The other person must be pushed to the other side to replicate how sexuality was learned.
My second concern is the devaluation of memory. American blogger Marc Barnes, who frequently emphasizes the importance of seeing individuals as persons instead of units, complains that we are becoming like our computers in that we merely access stored data instead of actively memorising information and making it a part of our thought. We, therefore, cannot allow the knowledge we have learned by heart to shape and inform our lives. My own computer has probably thousands of web pages bookmarked, but I certainly cannot say that I know what the near-universal majority of them are about. They might be handy to have, and I can access them if I need to. Instead of just being sources we can cite, memorised poetry (for example) can influence and elevate our speech, and when we have learned it we can find ways to give voice to concepts that we otherwise could not articulate. Memory is an essential aspect of individuality, so it is necessary to exercise it as fully as possible instead of outsourcing it to machines.
Instead of enduring this white noise, I want to go find an island where I shall have some peace from the virtual roadway, to riff on William Butler Yeats. Maybe we need some sort of new monasticism: instead of fleeing the cities for simple communal living in the isolation of the desert, we abandon the Internet for purer unmediated relations in the city. Take vows of abstinence from screens. Let’s choose to keep our attention from being divided by quizzes and memes and instant commentary, and seek a purer focus on the essential aspects of life. Personally, I can’t help fantasizing about living somewhere without Internet access, a short walk from a library or cafe in which I could check my e-mails and briefly browse the news, and just use a home computer for word processing. This is an extreme reaction to technology’s influence, which I don’t think everybody needs to do, but we should at least get off the bloody computer occasionally.