Comment: When your father confessor is a small plastic box

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The Independent Culture
THE FLY has gone. Today, when I go to work, there is no memento of last summer in what I see, but merely a clear blue, cybernetic sky. When I write these words, I am no longer startled by unexpected punctuation, a comma or an apostrophe where I least expect it.

My laptop attracts tiny insects known as thunder-flies. There is something about its screen that makes them want to get closer, to get behind it. In the summer of 1998, when I was first invaded, the makers, Toshiba, having unsportingly maintained that it was all impossible and that the flies were in my brain, eventually replaced the pounds 800 screen on my laptop. This July, in spite of extreme protective measures - the computer lived in a plastic bag when not being used - it happened again. Four flies gained entry and used to wander about my screen, in and out of my words. Three of them, having strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage, died in the wings. The fourth pegged out centre-stage.

I became used to him, lying there motionless as my prose scrolled over him, but eventually he had to go. Another call to Toshiba; another pounds 800 screen ordered. It was all very civilised. If I was slightly surprised that a machine that could tell me how to spell and correct my grammar still needed to be de-loused, like a dog with fleas, then I was not going to make a fuss about it. Better a thunder-fly than a computer bug of the more lethal variety.

But then something odd - odder than an insect in a computer - happened. I found myself reluctant to let my computer fall into the hands of strangers, however kindly and knowledgeable. It was as if I would be giving away a part of myself.

In her book The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer suggests that the reason why women are in the habit of carrying handbags is that they are "an exterior uterus, the outward sign of the unmentionable burden". At the time, this concept - the idea that a girl buying a lovely Lulu Guinness bag is essentially making a gynaecological statement - caused me some difficulty - but, applied to computers, it makes perfect sense.

How else can we explain why those who spend much of their day in communing with and through a computer are so vulnerable and peculiar, reacting with rage, panic and a sense of personal violation when it succumbs to cybernetic dementia or simply dies?

Suddenly, it is not just a machine on the blink but a friend, a teacher, a confidant, a lifeline, a father confessor; a purveyor, in some cases, of their most secret fantasies, who has abandoned them. It is their soul in a plastic box, and only a geek in a nylon shirt can bring it back to them. No wonder they go bonkers.

I'm almost sure that it was this effect that Stephen Poliakoff is trying to explore in his play Remember This. One of his characters points out how a sort of voodoo adheres to computers, and how office workers attempt to personalise and tame them by giving them names, decorating them, attaching teddy bears to them.

Another idea that emerges through the confused mish-mash of the play's narrative, is that direct experience and human memory are somehow being eroded by the deferred, second-hand versions that are offered by the new technology; if an event does not exist on disk, hard drive or video, it becomes less real.

Perhaps some great writer - probably a novelist, for fiction is where the most adventurous writing is now to be found - is already exploring this surrender of the human to the technical. In which case I offer, as a small but poignant symbol of nature lost in a cybernetic universe, my late companion, the thunder-fly.

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