Computer Nostalgia and Malignant Doppelwelts

I am nostalgic for the computer. Yes, for the thing that, today, I have more of than I ever needed — or ever wanted. In a world where computers are as ubiquitous and invasive as roaches — where few tangible goods are made that aren’t connected, collecting, and calculating — nostalgia seems a bit misplaced, doesn’t it? But I feel it anyway. Why? Read on…

There was something special about the computer of my youth. I’ve been returning to that thought again and again over my adult life, mostly in an attempt to understand what changed in the time between my childhood — when computers inspired me — and now — when they just…don’t. I even made an incomprehensible (read: not very good) short animation about this in my final year of college. That was fifteen years ago, when the computers I was thinking about were, themselves, ancient as far as tech goes, and the computer I was using might have been the same age compared with what we have now. Just for the sake of comparison, the computer I used to produce that incomprehensible animation was a Sony VAIO Digital Studio desktop machine with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and Nvidia’s GeForce FX 5200 graphics card. Good specs for the time, but compared with today’s entry level pocket computers, SAD! I was excited about that computer back then, not because it was an exciting computer — it ran Windows XP (vom) which was about as far from exciting as any interface has ever been — but because of what I was trying to do with it. But when I was a kid, I was excited by computers — by being in the strange, digital flatlands they projected into my world, by hearing them buzz and hum, by talking to them with rudimentary code, by adapting to their alienness. What is different about computers today? Shouldn’t they offer all that same magic, but just in exponentially greater supply?

I know, in returning to this thought so often — in turning it over and over in my mind — that it is not merely a matter of techno-ennui; it is not just that in being immersed in computers for three decades I have become bored by them. In the parlance of a parent constantly concerned with “screen time,” I intuit that this is a matter of quality, not quantity and of sublimity, not supremacy.

The proliferation of computing — the invasion, as I put it earlier — is surely worth concern. But I must admit that when I feel the nostalgia trigger, it’s tied more to the visual experience of computing than computing as a concept. Though I could geek out on the full sensory experience of early computing — the touch of the peripherals, buttons and dials, the sounds of the drives and fans and keys, the warmth, even the smell — It’s typically about what’s on the screen. What I saw when I used them.

The screen has always been a window upon another world and has always had the power to seduce us away, mentally, from this one. But with every year, the window opens wider and wider, making it not just difficult to avoid gazing through, but threatens to envelop us completely, its world indistinguishable from our own. That has always terrified us — the blurred line between the real and the virtual. Virtual Reality, even in its first blocky, stuttering incantation, sparked a moral panic among parents everywhere who worried that their kids would strap screens to their faces and never take them off. Guess what? We have that now, and we don’t call it “virtual reality.” We call it phones. We call it being connected. Though wildly more sophisticated, the face screens of today are just as niche as they were then. VR 2.0 is still for the ubergeeks. But the phones are for everyone. And yet, really, it’s not just about ubiquity. The view the screen provides — coupled with their increasing size, and yes, the infrequency with which our eyes gaze upon any view unobstructed by them — creates a special gravity that threatens to pull us completely — mind, body and spirit — into their glassy, malignant doppelwelt.

The screens of the past didn’t do that. Couldn’t.

The screens of my childhood were smaller, but it’s the stillness of their world that I recall fondly. Held back, of course, by the processing power and graphic fidelity of the time, computers of that time were not just slow, they slowed things down.

Even though they crunched numbers faster than our brains could even think of them — blinking cursors, keystrokes, lists of values, and shrill beeps punctuating executed commands were all the deceptively basic products of extensive calculations — early personal computers rarely had a reason to show the speed at which they moved. All the familiar and desired operations available then — the command line, the word processor, the game of solitaire — buried the computer’s core processing processing power beneath layers of visualizations that, though also fast from the perspective of the line of code, felt slow to the human eye. It gave us time to think. Time to wonder. That, plus an often enigmatic visual language of symbols and shapes, drew out my young imagination as readily as a book with no pictures. In order to connect with its world, I had to think.

I often think back to screens I had left on for hours, if not days. I could return again and again, like Lucy through the wardrobe, to a world unchanged, no matter how long I had been away. The content on the screen remained still and unchanged, perhaps only the delicate blinking of the cursor marking its own special time. The machine waited patiently for me. I had as much time as I needed to consider my next keystroke, and what I left there was put in almost suspended animation. It was a magically atemporal. But what computer is like that today? What computer doesn’t pull us into its reality on its terms, nagging us to return and never leave. What computer doesn’t accelerate experience? What computer’s world — its frenzied coke-binge of information — doesn’t bleed out into our own?

If we had it to do over again, could we have made computers that didn’t do this to our world? Could we have had an acceleration of processing power without an abdication of reality? Is this, as Kevin Kelly has put it, “what technology wants?” Is this what we want? I wonder.




Heavy Rotation

This performance by Rage Against the Machine could also be my “On Screen” entry, but it’s thanks to YouTube’s suggestion algorithm that I stumbled upon this video — after going down a nostalgia rabbit hole of 1990’s musical performances I loved — and was propelled back into listening to RATM’s music again. When I hear Zach de la Rocha, I’m immediately swept up in his anger and it hits me that his charisma — his potential to inspire others to bring change to the horrible prejudices and circumstances he rapped about — ultimately worked against his message. That’s not his fault; looking around the world today, it’s clear that he raged into a capitalist black hole. Plenty of people like me (white men of a certain age) heard his righteous anger as teenagers and, without really listening, let it validate ours in all its unjustified, unfocused, impotent adolescence. And twenty-five years later, his voice still has that seductive power. I hear that raw anger and feel a fire within me, and yet, I have the presence of mind now to ask: what the fuck have I done about the genocides happening just a flight away, to people just as worthy of a good life as I am? What have I done about anything? It’s tragic that everything de la Rocha rhetorically tore to shreds — racism, inequality, plutocracy, oppression, murder, political hypocrisy, etc. etc. etc. — not only remains intact a generation later, but is worse than ever before. If I had been truly listening back then — if I’d been able to — setting aside my unconscious bias toward all that had led me to that point of privilege in the first place, the proper response wouldn’t have been to buy a ticket to their concert, or buy a t-shirt, or buy their next album. It would have been shame. Then, sacrifice. And then — maybe — revolution.

I want to like IDK About You, by Fever Ray, because it’s Fever Ray, but I don’t. Maybe you will? Hundred Acres, by S. Carey, is basically everything that people say they like about Bon Iver — it’s delicate, beautiful, lush, sounds like wandering through a meadow — but it’s not Bon Iver, so you’re free of the maddening pretense of affectational falsetto on every single damn track and therefore, I really like it. This commentary is all the more mean-spirited given that S. Carey is Bon Iver’s drummer. Mutual Horse, by Holly Miranda, is also good. The production is really, really seductive. Also, what genre is this? Don’t know, don’t care.

Lastly, Dave, if you’re reading, check out Reflections — Mojave Desert, by Floating Points, and New Varieties, by Lymbyc Systym. These albums seem like they are for you.

On Screen

My wife and I are really enjoying Everything Sucks! on Netflix. If you liked Freaks and Geeks and want to watch that again, but for the 90s (which is appropriately nostalgic given the subject of this post), you will like Everything Sucks!.

Recent Tabs

The zeitgeist in one-video: Would it have been too obvious to name this human/robot dance duet “Pinnochio?” Also, in robots-doing-things-people-used-to-do-on-stage, Dolce & Gabbana used drones to carry handbags down the runway instead of models. And this is what eagles think of your drones. More robots: The tale of the painting robot who didn’t steal anyone’s job (emphasis mine). Are ‘you’ just inside your skin or is your smartphone part of you?? Stop saying smart cities. The death of clothing. An annotated version of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas that you can read online. “It’s okay. That doesn’t happen here. This is London, that’s America. We don’t let people have guns.”

Written by Christopher Butler on March 8, 2018,   In Essays

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