From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 30, 2002*: Really a part of me.

When it comes to technologies, my predictive capabilities seem rather limited. I'm one of those people who never thought the idea of walkmen would catch on. I couldn't figure out why people would want to be alone with music in their heads when they're in public settings. I liked the idea of not always being accessible, and resisted having a cellular phone until one was thrust upon me. That being the case, I'm not the person to trust when it comes to wearable computers. I don't expect that I'll be needing one in the near future, but once again, I'm the person who thought that an electronic typewriter was all I needed when my electric typewriter went about fifteen years ago. I've been wrong before. But I don't have to wear a computer in order to become attached to it. Lately I've become intensely aware of how much the computer, and a connection to the internet, have become, in my mind, logical extensions of myself.

The computer I use at one of my places of work recently broke down. And though repairing it isn't an expensive endeavor (the problem is electric) the budget for doing the necessary repairs hasn't been approved. So the computer sits, dysfunctional, on my desk. That unto itself isn't much of a problem. Most of the files that I might want to access are on a networked drive, and other computers are readily available. I rarely access my e-mail from this computer so I don't need it for that, or for an address book. About all that I really miss is my bookmarks file, and I've got very similar, though not identical, copies of that on other computers, on disk and on numerous sites that store bookmarks online. Being able to get to important files isn't the problem. Something else, however, is.

We have our meetings in the same room as the computers. The meetings are conducted around a large table, and the computers, aligning the walls of the room, are accessible more or less at the swivel of a chair. My place at the table is with my back to my (presently not functioning) computer. At these meetings I find that, as is to be expected, a comment made, a question asked, sets me off on a chain of thought that leads to my fingers ending up on the keyboard. I may want to view a file in the computer, or click over to a URL that's in my bookmarks, or even run a quick Google search. Whatever, I feel the need for the computer keyboard under my fingers so that I can think something through, determine how I relate to the topic at hand. This inability of late to be able to turn to the computer on a whim and find whatever it is that I need causes me an almost physical discomfort. My body makes the turn to the computer, and then I realize that I can't use it. One of the people with whom I work has even noticed this and commented on it - it's apparently not just in my mind.

Technologies are traditionally viewed as extensions of our senses, so perhaps there shouldn't be anything strange in my feeling that the computer has become not only an integral part of my life, but almost of my body as well. I've worn glasses since I was a teenager, and they're the first thing I pick up in the morning. They're truly an extension of my eyes. Is the telephone, and more specifically, the cell phone, an extension of our voice? In many ways, the answer is yes.

But would be pushing things a bit too far to claim that the computer is an extension of the brain? It does perform functions that are brain-related. The calculating and computing capabilities of the computer were what first made it famous (and gave it its name). Computers are also capable of simulations - another extension of the brain. On the other hand, word processing, probably the most common computer function (after playing games) doesn't, in and of itself, have much to do with thinking. I've watched many people, both adults and children, hunt and peck their way through a document, and judging by their speed, it hardly seems to me that they think via, or through, the keyboard. But more and more, and especially with the aid of Palms and the like, people use the computer as a tool for remembering - a very important thinking function.

We're constantly being bombarded with information. And even though we often behave as if we can't get enough, the real problem that confronts us isn't how to be continually connected, but how to filter out what we don't need. Our brains are capable of doing this. They allow us to see what's new, what's different in a familiar scene. That in itself is an achievement, though the real achievement is being able to keep the familiar from seeming new. Were that to happen we'd constantly be discovering the world from scratch, we'd be proud that we've invented, and reinvented, and reinvented the wheel. But how is all this related to my feeling as though the computer, and an internet connection, have become exensions of my body? I first became attached to the internet when I understood it as a means of getting to something, even anything, new. Almost by definition this was a sort of out of body experience, since I had to allow myself to seek out the different, the new. My attachment of today is different. The new still interests me, but I relate to the internet more as an experienced tour guide who knows to call my attention to the sorts of things that will interest me.

But can a machine be a tour guide? Only when I train it to be one. And only when I allow it to serve me in such a way. When I've learned to do this, the online computer becomes similar to the glasses that I reach for first thing in the morning - the world is out there, with or without the glasses, but I can't relate to it properly without them. I'm not addicted to my glasses - but I certainly need them in order to function. My almost instinctive turning toward the computer, and the almost physical discomfort that I feel when there's no computer to which to turn, seem to reflect less a dependence, an addiction, than a constructive symbiosis between man and machine. It may not be that I can't live without it, but it definitely seems that in the most positive sense I've learned to live with it.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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