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Losing your virtual mind

By Liz Conor - posted Tuesday, 10 October 2006

The fact that I wrote this out in longhand ought to give away what this piece is about. The unthinkable has happened. Not crashed, stolen.

A great name for a rock band, most appropriately Heavy Metal, for banging one’s head seems a reasonable reaction to one’s entire virtual-life disappearing into the back of a truck.

Abruptly, I am forced to distinguish the uncanny and indefinable divide between virtual-life and life itself.


My dusty and forlorn desktop is a good start. Trying to account for a couple of gigabytes of files, films, photos and emails is surreal and disorienting. All those loose ends, my unfitted USB cables, trail like limp linguini over the surface of my missing virtual-mind.

And yet there is a paradoxical sense of tragedy and liberation. Perhaps this is how it feels to have one’s children taken into protective custody - as no doubt they would if I carelessly left them in an unlocked office.

The sense of tragedy of course, derives from how much of our personal life we now live out through our digital screens. All those emails might be documents of flirting, courtship, falling in love - the intimate residue of daily relating over years. The unculled photos that, once downloaded seemed to have gone into a vault, suddenly go out like lights. If I didn’t have such a mania for archiving I’d have lost all my kids’ baby photos, our unwedding album, my meticulous list of piano concertos, my shameless dance list including My Sharona, and so much more.

Our memories have become mediated by files. The void that opens up is the terror of remembering unassisted. Our motherboards are our emotional landscapes, our relationships networked, our memories safely stored. When it’s all gone we’re confronted with a scary and clinical revelation. We don’t remember anymore. We archive. We marshal memory through stored files and we relate through the mechanical blips of a yes-no binary.

The sense of liberation derives from the unexpected recovery of life bpc - before pc. There is the pleasure of lettering and its idiosyncratic attachment to voice. The mind meanders after one’s writing hand. Scribing is not the hand-eye co-ordination of keyboard, but somehow a hand-voice co-ordination. There is the deliciously monkish self-corralling of calligraphing, a very particular aloneness and quietude.

If this is not solace enough the fact that my computer, with whom I had ambivalent relations - it had difficulty waking up - will be replaced. My spanking new computer comes with an ominous little eye, a camera, which will peer at me from the casing. I suppose this should invoke the exhibitionist pleasures of becoming a Camcorder celebrity, famous in my own lunchbox. I’m told I can chat online.


But what should feel like new prospects for interfacing feels like an intrusion. I like speaking with words. I like relating to people when my children are asleep, when the time is right and not having grabbed a jangling phone while popping the toaster, stuffing cashews into lunchboxes and digging for soccer shin guards on the way out the door.

A slash of masking tape, to paranoically ward off any lurking Big Brother, is set aside for the new camera encased computer. I shall return to quietly hermiting in the dreamscape of my restored virtual desktop, having conversations with people who aren’t there, living through words, remembering through jpegs and scrolling through a web of distant home pages.

All of which sounds like I did lose my mind. Take it as a warning. I’ll spell it out in three little words. Back Up Now.

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About the Author

Liz Conor is a research fellow in the Department of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Read her blog Liz Conor: Comment and Critique here.

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