can you have a relationship with a computer?

For some peculiar reason I woke up this morning thinking about the kit that you have to have as a researcher. It’s snuck up on me I guess, this set of STUFF that I now rely on.

Maybe it’s a moment of regret at having neglected to properly farewell a trusty desktop which served me well for over ten years. I had it put together in Australia before I came to the UK, and at the time it was about as high spec as I could get. Fast and powerful it was.

I replaced the monitor with a flat screen about six years ago, but kept the tower. It worked perfectly well, in fact much better than the puny slow machine I had been given at work, so why replace it I thought.

But it didn’t have a wireless connection. And it only worked with a few USB sticks. However I devised other ways to email and deal with storage and back up. So during its lifetime I had no less than three laptops, two netbooks and an ipad to do this other work.

I liked my old machine. It was something like an old cardigan, old-fashioned but profoundly comfortable. There was a kind of solidity in its clunkiness, and a reliability that none of the ever lighter additional portable machines had.

However, eventually it had to be replaced by something else. It was still working as consistently as ever, but I just couldn’t live with the lack of functionality any more. With considerable regret I put it to one side of my desk, where it still sits adjacent to its replacement. I can’t quite seem to dispose of it yet, although I’ve not turned it on since the new computer was unpacked.

I do have a new friend in the new machine. It has a giant screen. It’s very fast. It’s a onesie too, not two separate pieces connected by ugly cables. It looks very stream-lined. It makes my old machine look like a museum piece. I don’t think I could ever go back to something like my former machine again. I love what the new one allows me to do – have the space to open up multiple documents at once, work online and on a document all at the same time –I simply can’t believe I juggled around the old one for so long.

But there’s something very Bruno Latour about all of this. It’s probably not too far a stretch to say it feels as if I’ve just moved part of my brain out of one body into another. I kept all of my files on the old machine, you see, even if they were backed up elsewhere. Because I started using Endnote in 1997, the machine housed an enormous reference list of everything I’ve read since then – over 9,000 references all with key words that I can search. The machine also housed my PhD and everything I’ve written since I moved from being a schoolie into higher education. The old machine was as much my academic career as the rest of me. It was my text work/identity work in a grey plastic case.

I think that I got networked with my old desktop and was not prepared to uncouple myself from it. I was happy to let new little gadgets into our world, but only to play subsidiary roles. It was only when the disfunctionality got overwhelming that I stopped improvising half-way solutions.

There’s no other bit of kit that has had the same place in my affections as my old desktop. I change still-cameras fairly regularly. I’m about to buy a new digital recorder that is broadcast quality and I’ll set aside the old one without a qualm. I couldn’t care less about my phone which I change every now and then. My host of USBs has largely been replaced by cloud storage with barely a blink. I always carry a flip video recorder in my bag, a piece of obsolete kit now to be sure, but pretty handy for an ethnographer to still have something like that around if needed. But I don’t feel attached to it. I do like my ipad but I can feel myself working up to buying a smaller one to use in field work. Nothing compares to the old reliable grey box.

I do wonder if this is all a bit peculiar. Is there anyone else out there who has a close and co-dependent relationship with a bit of technology?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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6 Responses to can you have a relationship with a computer?

  1. shaileshak says:

    My answer is Yes, I can. Although I had it only with the one computer at work which I had for 10 years and only set aside late last year.

    The reason is simple; it was stable and reliable all those 10 years and still will do a good job. Plus, the alternatives weren’t coming out so fast as it is now.

    It was a very high spec PC in 2002 although had to add a new hard disk few years ago. If I had an entry level PC at that time, it would have got replaced sooner and wouldn’t have had that ‘relationship’. So investing on a ‘good one’ may increase the possibility of lasting long and developing an attachment/relationship.

    The cheeky approaches in drip feeding technology while the companies already have the next few versions in hand is now seen as an ‘acceptable’ practice. For example, iPad 1 without camera – was it just a prototype to test market? Would anyone dare to release the one with camera first, and then one without? Does anyone need Windows 7 if XP could do the jobs ‘safely’? Such marketing of improved (?) choices would mean that the long ‘relationship’ like the ones mentioned above will be scarce in the future.

    Another reason for long ‘relationship’ would have been the fact that, as you say, the huge amount of ‘data’ that were stuck in PCs. Now very large capacity external hard drives have addressed such issues and the ‘cloud’ behaviour, forced by tablet boom, is the final nail for any long ‘relationship’.


    • Simon Bailey says:

      I agree, and there’s an interesting counter to that ‘latest gadget’ thing in that really prevalent sense of retro-tech sentiment. Some of the early Atari games consoles go for serious bucks on eBay. Music technology is particularly prone to it – analogue synthesisers become old friends, and whole genres can start out as celebrations of one particular synth – like techno and the Yamaha TR808. I have some boutique guitar pedals that if I sold could probably clear my student loan, but I never could. I think there is an interesting sense of the human in the object – the analogue which is always better than digital, the boutique which is always better than mass produced. The reason those things are better is they allow you to stamp more of yourself on them, while still giving you wings.


  2. macademise says:

    I definitely identify with ANT (or, with Knorr Cetina’s notion of knowledge objects) with regard to how I relate to my Air and iPad. They hold so many of the things I care about – everything I’ve written, literature that I love, different drafts of a journal article that signify my progress as a researcher, and so on. They also have apps that structure my engagement with my writing in particular ways (create particular affordances, if you like), and that can also make my writing processes more or less enjoyable (e.g. writing with Scrivener is wonderful, writing with Word is not). My iPad goes everywhere with me. I think the literature that emphasises the more object centres relationships of contemporary societies have something to them.


  3. I can totally relate to this post Pat. I have been given a new Mac Air by ANU. My mother in law is prepared to give me money for my old Mac Air which is still fully functional, but for some reason I can’t make the swap. The new one is still sitting under my desk 2 weeks later. It’s irrational, but despite being just as sleek and two times more powerful, I can’t shake the feeling that the new one is not as GOOD as my current machine…


  4. lukevanryn says:

    Danny Miller’s book Stuff collects some stories like these, as does a collection Sherry Turkle edited called Evocative Objects.
    Sidenote: I agree that MacBook Airs are fantastic.


  5. Lucy says:

    I can relate to this, computers are like boyfriends. They both need serial monogamy and there are some that will always remain fondly in your heart. Others, like whose names you find in old diaries, have (thankfully?) disappeared in the mists of time. My first laptop will always remain in my heart. He was bought on ebay and when he turned up had a Swedish keyboard. Instead of sending it back as misdescribed I decided to keep it and learn how to use it the strange keys. Over 5+ years that computer lost the markings on 1/3 of it’s keys, lost several keys completely and the upper case broke around the hinges & I learned how to take it apart, reglue and reassemble it. Oh, and it suffered the most frequent blue-screen-of-deaths that I’ve ever seen. In short, he was flakey. He was called Cadbury. It was a wrench to say goodbye to Cadbury despite everything, but his replacement, about 100x more powerful & more reliable, made almost no impression.

    My current computer is called Sardine (Mac Book Pro – silver, sleek, nippy), and has been with me through my Phd. I’m half way through writing up and Sardine is reaching old age now, he’s getting slow and a little cranky (or maybe that’s just me!). I’ve promised myself a new one when my thesis is finished, but some how I can’t bring myself to look at new models…


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