Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Ellen Ullman on old computers

Ellen Ullman has a new gig as a columnist for The American Scholar, which she kicks off with an elegant piece titled “Memory and Megabytes,” sparked by a decision to buy a new computer (and, coincidentlaly, to remarry), and a struggle over whether to copy all the old files from her old computers to her new one. The end is worth quoting:

Though I knew I did not want their contents perpetually before me on my ever-renewing machines… I also felt they did not belong on the floor of the guest closet– or cast out on the curb with the dead stereos and forlorn monitors.

For I understood that each was a sort of diary, a record of time bounded by the writing of a book. The arrangements of the folders, the feel of the keyboards, the look of the screens– these were as particular as handwriting, able to stun me back in time. What they held was not “data” but experience. And I knew they should be saved the way you save those other records of experience, journals, which is to say carefully but not too ceremoniously, neither thrown away nor read too often, opened only on those mysterious days– and they are always mysterious– when you can bear, and suddenly need, the shock of remembering.

So I cleared a space for them on the bookshelf and stood them up, vertically, like the notebooks they are. And they took their place among the other diaries and journals, treacherously holding the past, their power units crouched behind them like small, sleeping rats.

The prose is elegant– the alliteration of the blunt, almost viscerally striking words “stun” and “shock,” the quirky sleeping rats metaphor at the end– but what blows me away is her insight that we can become as familiar with computers as we become with an ex-lover’s handwriting. These things are just supposed to just be interchangable beige boxes for processing zeroes and ones, but they’re not. That, in a nutshell, is a dawning realization– exemplified in works like John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s Social Life of Information— that information technologies aren’t portals to some Platonic realm of knowledge, but are deeply human things. They’re “personal” computers, indeed.

1 Comment

  1. A wonderful piece. And I love her insight. Thank you for introducing her to me. You are a constant stream of new images and thoughts for me.:O)) ophelia

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