Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Breathing Machine, A Memoir of Computers, by Leigh Alexander

"The secret sadness that underlies the proliferation of interactive entertainment and technology isn't only that we may lose their mystery. It isn't only that we’ll lose the pioneer feel of uncharted islands wreathed in newness, the half-finished thoughts of strangers surfacing in the distance. It isn't even so much that we may be disappointed by the thin realizations of virtual worlds and repetitive, static online games, or the barrage of social media. It’s that our appetites, wishes and fantasies are cool now, sanctioned and monetizable, and we are open to being exploited."

Leigh Alexander has long been one of my favorite writers on the Internet. I originally found her on Kotaku (where she still occasionally contributes), where her pieces on story, diversity and exploration in gaming serve as stellar counterpoints to the dudebro commenters giggling over "make me a sammich" jokes and wondering why anyone cares about that whole feminism thing.

Her announcement, seemingly out of nowhere, that she'd written a memoir about her youthful relationship to technology had me salivating (even if those dastardly Apple users got the book a few days earlier than I did). Anyone who's a fan of Alexander needs no convincing -- Breathing Machine is the Leigh you know and love. What about for everyone else? Well, it depends.

I say "it depends" not to disparage Alexander or her writing, but only to point out that the book is a very personal, very time-specific piece of writing. It's not about computers as much as it is about interaction -- interaction with machines, and our interaction with each other through machines, the evolution of which occurred mainly in the early to mid-nineties, when the Internet came out of universities and basements, but wasn't quite mainstream yet. To anyone who was an adult during this time, it likely seems a lot less mystical. To anyone born afterward, being entranced by text games and seedy chatrooms probably sounds a bit silly.

But to those of us in adolescence in that oh so perfect and mysterious time period, we understand. We understand GOing NORTH to PUNCH RATs. We understand the allure of anime, traded on IRC and watched in dark rooms with shitty projectors and shittier subtitles, back before anime was a billion dollar craze in the Western world. We understand pretending to be Final Fantasy and Dragon Ball Z characters, creating a world together and taking epic actions while ::speaking in brackets::.

The reminiscing reminded me of one of my most poignant online experiences, one that still sticks with me to this day. I remember being in class (sixth grade, maybe?) and being encouraged to participate in an international pen pal program. I didn't. What would I talk about? I asked myself. What would I say to someone a world away that wouldn't sound trite and ignorant?

A few days later, I logged onto one of my favorite chatrooms to talk about whatever miscellany normally occupied us (probably video games, anime and porn). I got into a discussion with one particularly brusque fellow about some minor Final Fantasy plot point, and when he declared he needed to get ready for work in the middle of the night, I discovered he lived in Australia.

In one fell swoop, the entire concept of pen pals was obsolete. It's easy to take for granted how much the Internet has expanded the scope of our social interactions, but for 13-year-old me, it was astounding. These are the memories Alexander's book forces me to regurgitate.

It might be fair to criticize the book as overly nostalgic. After all, who would go back to AOL chatrooms, given the choice? But though Alexander recalls her electric explorations fondly, she never pretends they were perfect, and doesn't assert that we could or should go back, even if they were.

She does end on a somewhat sad note by pointing out some troubling trends in the evolution of technology. Our shared language that was once used to build a community is now used to exclude those who look like past (or even imagined) tormentors. We erect barriers, not welcome mats. And the moneyed interests prey on our fears, make us suspicious of Outsiders so that we might buy, buy, buy in order to protect our Cred.

Breathing Machines is not a long book. It is not a thematically challenging book. You will not learn any grand truths reading this book. There are no historical tidbits or shocking answers to big questions. You may, however, recognize yourself in the author. And that in itself can be a sobering experience.

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