Focus – Love and Longing in Cyberspace

by Major Deborah Flagg – 

I have a troubled relationship with my computer. I hate to admit it, but it’s a marriage of convenience, definitely conditional and bordering on codependency. It mocks me with its elaborate and incomprehensible network of connections, and I gently dust its screen. It tortures me by refusing to print my most important communiques, and I ply it with inspirational screen savers. It freezes up at the most critical moments, and I continue to warm its keys with trembling fingertips. It abuses me, but I keep coming back for more.

I enable it to be dysfunctional–I know that. It senses my inner turmoil and distrust. But I need it so. I would put up with almost anything to hear its little bells and whistles and to know that my words are being processed. I even tolerate its smug know-it-all attitude as it feeds me information I don’t need and constantly corrects my spelling and grammar. We have volumes of shared history. I’ve entrusted it with my deepest, most profound thoughts. How can I ever go back, ever break free?

Oh, I’ve read the harsh analyses of Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman and Douglas Groothius, those technophobes. They say that my computer is just a machine and not a person, but they don’t know it like I do. Yes, it has its moments, but it’s also reliable, compatible and intelligent. It has memory and connections. It’s even friendly. Does that sound like a machine? It’s also vulnerable, poor thing, subject to infectious viruses that crowd its little system with extraneous material. It gets sick, and it can also get well. Machines don’t do that, people do.

There are those who would have me believe that my computer and others like it–the whole vast web of network consciousness–are subtly altering my perceptions of reality, not just recording my thoughts but shaping the way I think. They say that because of my temperamental friend my whole felt world is changing; the way I eat, travel, work and care for others, even the way I think about others. They make it sound like I’m in peril, but I don’t want to listen. How can they say this about an entity that makes my life so…so…easy?

I try to shut out the voices of those who call my computer deceptive, of those who say that I am beguiled by its internet promise of instant community while it actually inhibits real connection, drawing me away from tradition and significant communication, doing me moral harm. Okay, I’ve had my suspicions, but it’s just a little bundle of wires with such cute little windows and such immediate gratification. As stormy as our relationship has been, I still have a hard time believing it sinister.

And just what is so bad about information? Some would say that my partner in documents is turning me into an information junkie, elevating information to a godlike status through an array of option-rich multi-media packages. They would have me think that this glut of information comes at the expense of true learning, making me feel disengaged and helpless. I’d bet my CD-Rom they’re mistaken. Although I am overwhelmed by it all, access to limitless information must be good for me. It must be.

Then there’s Wendell Berry, the machine basher, who is compelled to spiritualize my situation, using words like “roots,” and “community,” and “place,” asking questions like “what are people for?” Doesn’t he realize there is no way to resist? There are others who bring in the God question, reminding me I need to proceed cautiously through any technological endeavor that involves the “enormous self-sanctioning expansion of human power.” I have been reminded that it is not WORD Perfect or Microsoft WORD, but WORD MADE FLESH that has the power to transform me. Some have even suggested that Jesus’ words “The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath” could be paraphrased to apply to my electronic friend.

In spite of all this, I want to believe the best about it. I really need it! So, I think I will take Bill Gates as my cyberprophet. He is, after all, a sort of creator. When he uses words like “friction-free capitalism” and “wallet PC’s” my pulse quickens. When he exults, “All the goods in the world will be available for you to examine…It will be a shopper’s heaven,” I want to sing “Blessed Assurance.” I will get to know my computer better, I will explore its options, I will get an ergonomic keypad. And even when it’s bad to me, I will infuse it with power.

Well, I will soon click on print and hope that my processing companion will actually turn out a couple of 8.5 x 11 sheets containing these interactive ramblings — just a little something for you to think about the next time you’re downloading.

I may even think about it myself the next time I turn on my computer…or the next time it turns on me.

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