Our addiction to materialism is in large part due to a paradoxical need to transform the precariousness of consciousness into the solidity of things. The body is not large, beautiful, and permanent enough to satisfy our sense of self. We need objects to magnify our power, enhance our beauty, and extend our memory into the future.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Why We Need Things”
Ours is a time in which ontological questions of truth and falsehood are less relevant than issues of control— control of meaning, control of context. Only a tradition bound to the precious object as commodity would find problematic the replacement of “reality” by “simulacra of simulations.” For those who conspire in electronic visualization the issue is not a return to some “authentic” reality but the power to control the context of simulation. The fear of “losing touch with reality”, of living in an artificial domain that is somehow “unnatural”, is for us simply not an issue, and we have long since elected to live accordingly. What matters is the technical ability to generate simulations and the political power to control the context of their presentation. Moralistic critics of the simulacrum accuse us of living in a dream world. We respond with Montaigne that to abandon life for a dream is to price it exactly at its worth. And anyway, when life is a dream there’s no need for sleeping.
— Gene Youngblood, “The New Renaissance: Art, Science, and the Universal Machine”, The Computer Revolution and the Arts (1989)
1. The first time I remember the family computer hard drive crashing, I threw a full on reactor-melt-down, where-is-your-God-now temper tantrum. I was about ten or eleven, this was soon after I'd taken the leap into full blown tech nerd. If the stuff you'd lose in a hypothetical fire were just things, the stuff you lost when the PC crashed were just imaginary things, so I was consoled.
2. My father took me to the MacWorld conferences a few times when I was a small child. He worked for a magazine publisher who put out computer enthusiast magazines, and sharing the perks of his job was one of the ways we bonded. Some of my earliest memories are playing with the early 90s virtual reality helmets at the convention and basking in the neon glow of promise and interconnectivity that personal computers bestowed.
I have never known a world without digital technology. I have a personal, digital archive dating back to fifth grade, when my best friend and I decided in a delusion of girl-nerd grandeur to scan our craft projects and make an online store to sell them on. Finding those floppy disks and clicking through them with her means more to me than any yearbook or basketball trophy I have from those same years. The virtuality or corporeality of a souvenir, a talisman, a personal effect makes no difference to its significance to me. The depth of the experience is in the user's hands-- technology on its own neither degrades or enlightens us-- and for me, it's the ideal prosthetic for my fallible memory and limited storage space.
3. At the age of ten I taught myself HTML, developed niche hobbies, and began my emotional life on the internet. The first hobby I pursued these ways was anime (ages 10-14), the second was the fandom surrounding a Boston band called The Dresden Dolls (ages 15-20), whose fans swarmed to the very active message-board on the band's website, “The Shadowbox”. You know a hobby has mutated into devotional fandom when you have a special name for yourself (“otaku” and “shadowboxer”, respectively). That my computer was a window into fringe interests in addition to a tool for creativity made it that much more the central object of my young life.
4. The best way I can approach talking about subjective aspects of experience is to get personal. Is the biographical approach mere navel-gazing? Where else would I start?
5. I don't need to list the articles of pop sociology hand-wringing about "Generation Y/Millennials" and our newfangled self-absorption and digital-widget-media-synthesis-cyber-blog addictions. You've seen one if you've read any opinion news in the last one hundred years. There are countless op eds complaining about kids these days and our virtually augmented emotional realities. If only we expended so much serious energy concerned with preserving the free exchange of information, user privacy, and social media data-mine NSA creepiness on the web as we did with shaming teenagers for enjoying themselves. I picture Jonathan Franzen shaking his fist at cyborg children who've cut through his lawn while a board of shadowy figures wiretaps his phone.
In more abstract and academic environments, this panic, this nostalgia for an earlier phase of the culture industry, this misunderstanding of the emotional expressions and significance of digital and virtual objects, takes the form of mourning the loss of materiality.
For myself and many others, there has been no loss. Aside from the computer literally being an object, the experiences that it can catalyze, the memories it can archive, feel as solid as a CRT terminal.
6. Whatever it is I'm trying to grapple with here is prevalent in my latest short story, “Cordyceps”, which follows a woman cleaning out her dead father's house and booting up his Windows 95 computer, only to be flooded with emotional reactions to the retro interface she so strongly associates with her dad. She logs into his online gaming accounts and starts talking to his internet friends and worries about becoming a hermit like all computer-obsessives are said to, until things take a turn for the supernatural. The story is part of Friend. Follow. Text., an anthology of fiction about online life. It's an entire book of creative work about how important virtual and digital objects-- emails, personas, files-- mediate and affect us as deeply as anything else we're more used to.
7. It's not that I don't own photo albums and trinket boxes, it's that their contents have shrunk to the inside of one ten by twelve by twelve shipping box and one small black box from Ikea. The Ikea box came in a package of two and are the size of a short stack of CDs. "Digital media storage container". After moving a few times and traveling for months on end for jobs, it was only practical to reduce my talismans to those with only the most potent magic.
The shipping box stays in the back of my home closet: incomprehensible diary from first grade (drawings of boobs and musings on why soft music makes people think about love, and other things that seem not to have changed about me for twenty years); a comic book I drew in forth grade (I am the super hero and my side kick is an anthropomorphic watermelon); 90s anime soundtracks; ticket stubs from 2004-2008 Dresden Dolls concerts; a picture of my teenage self with an inappropriately older boyfriend and a heightened sense of significance particular to being that age.
Tucked inside my Ikea box, my external hard drive nestles like a hard, chrome-frosted Pop Tart against my late grandmother's jewelry and photos of my best friends. It contains a back up of everything I've never lost to a blue screen of death, and been moved to continually back-up through the years.
"Wow, just look at this stuff," I say when I peel through it about once a year.
"Uh oh, it's the Kelsey show,” says my best friend. “Let me know when you're done and we can watch X-Files.”
She's a little bit right. But every once in a while I feel so disconnected and alienated and other head colds of late-capitalism, and these objects orient me with identity and endow me with all the emotions Csikszentmihalyi describes in that opening quote.
8. It's unfortunate that materialism is a word with largely negative connotations. "They're just things," so says every single self-conscious and well intentioned person, thinking about their vapid neighbor who fills up the festering hole of his life with plastic sprockets. "If there were a fire, what's most important is that we have each other," they add, though this drastic and polarizing situation is not really what's in question. We hear "things" and "materialism" and we think about pleasure trinkets, and on a subconscious level we probably think we won't get into Heaven/find enlightenment/make the nightmares stop if we feel too much pleasure.
Just things. So what are the pencils and cameras we use to extend our ideas into comics and novels and films? What are weapons? Why bother to have heirlooms or wedding rings or teddy bears? Csikszentmihalyi pointed out that people with genuinely few possessions-- personal knick-knacks and talisman objects-- also tend to have genuinely few relationships of depth.
9. The sports car-hording neighbor is performing a very particular kind of materialism I'll call idolatry, where for any number of reasons you pour your own power into objects and worship them, frequently with the opposite outcome of teddy bears. Computers can be used this way, too. Computers, more than most other tools, precede their ultimate use and function. It's on the user.
Idolatry sucks you dry. American pop culture is fond of this theme in the flavor of disaffected businessmen and their mid-life crisis. Basically American Beauty and Fight Club and like at least three Radiohead albums (you could overfill a graduate seminar called "The Death and Afterlife of a Salesman: Unresolved Ennui, Systemic Privilege, and Misdirected Anger at Modernity", and I don't even know if I'm joking or not).
I experienced the nefarious side of object use from trying to possess all of the paraphernalia for my hobbies. When an interest must be performed through conspicuous consumption, even with subcultural branding, it's worth taking a step back for some perspective. Sometimes genuine enjoyment mingles with a strong yearning to win status and shield against accusations of in-authenticity. Our identities require social validation, this is nothing to be ashamed of, merely aware of.
10. Nonetheless, stuff is vital. Digital stuff is still stuff. We can't assume to know the intentions or the experiences of other people's emotional lives as they are navigated and negotiated by their objects, tangible or not.
Teenage cyborg basks in the glowing rectangle and is larger, more beautiful, more infinite. They are nature, not its antithesis. She ignores the fist waving and hand wringing around her, and navigates the simulacra, countering with her own, seeking autonomy, self-determined, and satisfied.