Personal computing

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

I have conflicted feelings about computers. As a boy, I loved nature and playing in the garden more than anything. I thought computers were sinister, inherently bad, maybe even evil. Then, around 1990, my parents bought my brother and I an Amiga 500. At first, I was disappointed. What did I want with a computer when I could climb trees? But my parents made seemingly logical arguments in favour of this plastic devil. I could do my homework on it. It would be something to play with on a rainy day. It was fully upgradeable and would go with us through life, a trusted tool and companion. The marketers made big promises.

Well, we did upgrade the machine, doubling its memory from the original 512k. It was hard to know what exactly that improved. I don’t think I ever did any homework on it, though school friends and I thought it was possible to hack into banks through the plug socket somehow. People were talking about computers being connected in a mysterious way. These were the days when, confused at news reports of a computer virus, we would disconnect our internet-free machines from the mains.

But I did play computer games on rainy days, and sunny days. I even tried to make my own computer game by arranging letters in a text document. I knew that the action on screen was esoterically connected to patterns of alphanumeric characters. I thought that maybe if I moved the letters around to resemble the scene I wanted to create, something would happen.

And I wrote things on it. Computers and consoles came and went. Essays, poems, stories, and blogposts were written. I began to earn my living writing, editing, and making things on computers. I made music. I went down social media rabbit holes. Not long ago, I was browsing Twitter in a local cafe, reading a report from an Italian hospital, and realising that coronavirus was set to explode here too. Fuelled by corona uncertainty, it became a habit to check at every lacuna in the day. “What’s happening now? What’s happening now?”

For a while I was writing short poems on Twitter, like haiku. It was great to get an immediate response to my writing. I used to write a poem and wait months if not years before it found its way into a magazine or competition placing. But the social media reward loop can also become addictive, very sticky, and that isn’t very conducive to cultivating mind states useful to a writer or a meditator. One person I followed described Twitter as a gallery of souls. How fascinating and banal to see people’s thoughts flicker into life and soon irrelevance. But a palantír is a dangerous tool. The middle way probably means not having constant, trivial access to it.

Over the past few years, I’ve loved playing Xbox with old friends. There’s something about chatting together while collaborating towards a shared goal. I think it harks back to our early days hunting and gathering on the savannah. Not that I was ever there personally. Even in the depths of lockdown, we were so fortunate to be able to crew a galleon, (try to) survive a battle royale, or frag our way through a tactical shooter. I enjoy the imagination and challenge of these games, and they can be a great laugh to boot. I wouldn’t be without it.

Even so, there’s sometimes a part of me that asks, “Do I really need computers? Would I be happier without it all?” And another part of me is hopelessly enmeshed in it: the wires, the dopamine hits, the shiny promise of productivity, the self image. Will I ever get the balance right? Have computers lived up to decades of hype? Or do the costs weigh too heavily on our attention, on our planet, and the labourers who assemble them?

The truth is that while computers promise so much, every device wants you to enter into an uneven power relationship. We may naively think that hardware and software are simply tools that we control but increasingly they are engineered to control us, to nudge us towards purchases, political candidates, eyeballs on adverts, and “time on site” metrics. So Twitter’s algorithms have learnt to serve you snippets of outrage throughout the day because—thanks to a quirk of psychological evolution—what infuriates you is an order of magnitude more effective in capturing your attention than nice stuff. The games I enjoy increasingly want to hook you in so you’ll spend money on their season pass. They do this through addictive mechanics lifted directly from the gambling industry, such as variable rewards. I even suspect that skill-based matchmaking may be manipulated to keep you hooked by throwing up a mix of easy and punishing games. Are you still having fun?

In many ways computers have isolated us, atomised our work, and made it abstract. In other ways they have connected and empowered us, democratised information, amplified our voices, unchained creativity, and made it possible to work anywhere. I have less doubt that these tools are a necessary, inevitable step in our evolution than I have about their current marriage to market capitalism. Regardless, we’re only at the beginning of a journey towards finding balance in how we use information tech, and figuring out its uncanny ethics *cough* AI *cough*.

I was ten years old when I turned on my Amiga 500. Who knows how many hours I’ve spent personally computing in the decades since. Is there still time to unplug, go outside, climb a tree?

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash.

Haiku vol. 2

These haiku were written between the end of last year and the first half of 2020. So they include the first months of the coronavirus lockdown in the UK. The order has been somewhat rearranged from the order in which they were written. I hope they will be of interest to people who like Basho, Ikkyu, and other Buddhist hermit poets.

1.

Through shining roof tiles
the reflection of a bird
flies out of this world.

2.

Stones rise with each wave
like ballerinas en pointe
then fall with a click.

3.

A light grey drizzle,
bright petals in the gutter –
Thursday afternoon.

4.

Dream of a woodland
beside the road, steeped in mist,
trees drowning in mist.

5.

When we meet again
it may be in the haunted
forest of our youth.

6.

Yesterday three geese
flew over the house – today,
a sky full of rain.

7.

An unkempt garden –
two pillars but only one
protector lion.

8.

Semi-detached home –
a tree caught by a street lamp.
Empty sky above.

9.

Pink blossom falling –
it’s business as usual
in other kingdoms.

10.

Beautiful spring day.
Washing hanging on the line –
trees still have no leaves.

11.

Blue blanket, white cloths.
My shadow on warm concrete –
nowhere else to be.

12.

There’s water rushing
in the cool darkness beneath
this blossoming street.

13.

Everything we make
feels the gentle push of time
like this old brick wall.

14.

I’m waiting to hear
birdsong on the roof again –
nothing but silence.

15.

Spring blossoms appear
without hurry. Spring blossoms
leave without delay.

16.

The old granite wall,
here since Victorian times –
bursting with snowdrops.

17.

Incandescent moon
above this uncertain world –
silence can be kind.

18.

There’s nothing between
us and countless lonely stars –
upward vertigo.

19.

On my daily walk
a blackbird virtuoso
sings without applause.

20.

Rain on the skylight
brings gratitude for shelter –
may we all have homes.

21.

Just the same old moon
and same old constellations –
but who sees them now?

22.

Hazy orange sky.
Streets trickle with window-light –
stillness everywhere.

23.

Suburban garden:
bright plastic and broken tools
catch a swell of light.

24.

The freshness of birds
singing after weeks of rain –
Dartmoor in the sun.

25.

Rain shines on the path.
Hoods up and heads down, we each
make our own way home.

26.

Open the window.
Listen for inspiration –
birdsong after dark.

27.

A lopsided moon
hangs beside the empty church.
Blurry stars above.

28.

Blue sky, yellow moon
obscured by clouds. Streets echo
with evening talk.

29.

Stars circle the world
of names and maps, maintaining
anonymity.

30.

Brittle ferns of frost
disappear no matter how
intricately formed.

31.

Tall trees on the hill.
Seagulls caw from the church roof –
we’re all hermits now.

32.

Clear sky, empty sky.
Brilliance cast on rooftops –
look, the harvest moon.

33.

Lobelias bloom
along the old granite wall
like they did last year.

34.

Unlit church beneath
a night-blue sky. Chimneys, stars –
faint scent of wood smoke.

35.

Looking out at stars
as the feedback loops begin.
We will disappear.

36.

Writing in the loft
when suddenly the old church
sounds a lonely bell.

37.

September morning,
the lake impossibly still –
light splashing on leaves.

38.

A quick wind outside –
better unpack the blanket
for my evening sit.

39.

The neighbours’ wind chimes
dance in dark gardens – even
stars could blow away.

40.

I take the coast path
hoping for inspiration –
waves applaud the rocks.

41.

Seasons turn around
a eucalyptus rooted
beside the steep path.

42.

As the sky darkens
a seabird crosses the cove
leaving only this.

43.

Rooftops slick with rain.
The sky unknowable, blank.
What will today bring?

44.

Tyres roar in the wet.
Gutters overflow and drip –
the rain hears nothing.

45.

In meditation
we see thought-worlds bud like dew
and evaporate.

46.

Fisherman’s lookout
on the tourists’ island –
now open to the wind.

47.

Rain on the skylight
blurs amber bedroom windows –
happy solitude.

48.

Before work begins
I tip sand out of my shoes,
breathe fresh autumn air.

49.

Rain all afternoon.
The hills are bordered by fog –
islands of being.

50.

Bindweed creeps under
the sash window. Fine weather.
How long will it last?

51.

Stone houses darken.
Clicking on windows and tiles –
Devon in the rain.

52.

Through the rain-streaked glass,
against a matte grey sky –
geese follow the river.

53.

The quiet willow
allows its leaves to whisper –
wind stirs on the path.

54.

The deleted world
lies behind October mist –
one undo away.

55.

My brother’s garden
borders a wood of unknown
depth and wilderness.

56.

This autumn village
has an abundance of time –
the tang of coffee.

57.

Caught in sudden rain
while looking towards the moor –
might have worn a coat.

58.

Autumn-rust acer;
garage with blue paint peeling –
somebody’s childhood.

59.

Breathing after rain,
a gull calls in the blank sky –
stillness in the heart.

60.

The fact of a crow
embedded in blue dawn mist –
unspoken question.

61.

This floating world
is falling into emptiness.
Nothing to see here.

62.

Always rushing past
like a metaphor for time –
but it’s also wet.

63.

We play dharma talks
in a municipal room –
pregnant moon outside.

64.

Waves break on concrete.
Towers of spray rise and fall –
boom and hiss repeat.

65.

Carrying shopping.
Thinking, thinking – white smoke from
a neighbour’s chimney.

66.

Ghosts of rain teem through
valley fog, blind to their own
brief constellations.

67.

Wind roars in darkness.
Tragedy and farce – this world
exposed to cruel stars.

68.

This delivery
of wind and rain is a gift
already opened.

69.

Reflections hurry
through puddles in market square.
World is awareness.

70.

Unknowable sky
glitters above this hovel –
teeming with buddhas.

71.

The church on the hill
stands in darkness – a bell rings
suddenly, faintly.

72.

At home among tors,
away from the busy town –
cold wind, spacious mind.

73.

Dark morning. Somewhere,
the year turns on its axis –
coffee keeps me warm.

74.

Barefoot winter beach.
Remembering not to be
lost in memory.

75.

Morning refreshes
the garden with quiet rain.
Live simply this year.

76.

Composing haiku
while a barn owl calls the hunt –
just these empty words.

77.

Full moon behind clouds.
Awareness is all we have –
woodsmoke in cold air.

78.

Driving through the mist
these words about emptiness
appear and then fade.

79.

Goodbye permafrost.
Love this momentary world
where blind kings maraud.

80.

The fat moon hovers
serene above a stone pine.
Storm Ciara howls.

81.

Woken by thunder –
echoing cacophony
from a broken dream.

82.

Small autistic boy
watching trains by the river –
love breaks you apart.

83.

Those who look will see
primroses among gravestones –
time, relentless time.

84.

Surprise! A slow-worm
flicks and writhes as it travels
unforgiving realms.

85.

Still suburban night.
Streetlamps and mist. TVs paused –
a dream of a dream.

86.

The onrush of night
reveals what’s most important –
warmly lit windows.

87.

Let’s not overlook
simple moments of beauty
as they come and go.

88.

There’s a bird sculpture
rooted to the driveway gate,
desperate to take wing.

89.

Breathing the rain in.
Hearing it click on the roof –
time’s arrows falling.

90.

Petal-strewn pavement.
Blossom falls through an iron fence,
soon to be traceless.

91.

Spring petals brighten
the grey stone wall. How they grow
without permission.

92.

While the blackbird trills,
a woodpecker taps one note –
no less important.

93.

Rain on the skylight.
Luckily, I have nowhere
important to be.

94.

Rain on spring flowers.
The colour of everything
darkens and deepens.

95.

Skylight left open.
Rainwater meditation –
touch and fade, repeat.

96.

It’s long past midnight.
No sound except a light breeze
in the willow tree.

97.

What difference is there
between memories and dreams?
Morning after rain.

98.

The red flowerhead
fallen on the wet, black road
seems even brighter.

99.

Quiet neighbourhood
except for blackbirds singing
– early evening walk.

100.

The garden buddha
smiling enigmatically
in leaf-dappled shade.

101.

Early evening breeze.
Oak leaves rustle. Fractal roots
thread the old stone wall.

102.

The street feels different.
Memories drift in the breeze
where the willow stood.

103.

There it is again,
miles inland, unexpected
– the smell of the sea.

104.

Still no visitors.
The blossom has been and gone
– Devon in late spring.