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?