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The Constancy of its Affections

-- P. Lutus Message Page --
Omni Magazine, January 1988

"I can't stand it!" he said. "She wants A. I give her A. Suddenly she wants B; A has become boring." I was talking to a young computer programmer, destined for greatness if only his personal life didn't tear him apart first. He looked at me with a kind of intensity reserved for the young, as if to say "When does this start to make sense?"

I tried to explain to him that people aren't computers, that his wish for perfect constancy was a side effect of his work. I asked him to recall his first relationships, before he was exposed to the computer. Then it struck me like a read-write head crashing into a hard disk platter: his first relationship was with a computer. My young friend is among a new breed of humans being raised with, almost nurtured by, computers. And as surely as a duckling follows the first moving thing it sees, he assumes that normal human relationships are like writing a computer program.

For those of you who haven't had the programming experience, at first it's like trying to lace 500 shoes in a dark basement. Then the computer begins to warm up to you and only prints as many error messages as Baskin-Robbins has flavors. Then, hours or days later, the computer decides to accept your program — and continues to accept it forever. A parody of the ideal mistress, it waits for the perfect with glacial serenity. Shakespeare might as well have been thinking of the computer when he wrote "Constant you are,/But yet a woman: and for secrecy,/No lady closer; for I well believe/Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know;/And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate."

But soft: if you change a comma or a semicolon anywhere, the computer will instantly know, and reject you with the ferocity of a marine drill sergeant — SYNTAX ERROR IN LINE 2002 — BUS PHASE ERROR — CANNOT CONTINUE EXECUTION — PANIC SYSTEM CRASH — CORE DUMP FAILURE. In the icy dispassion with which the computer reacts to the tiniest human flaws, one message rings clear: it's all your fault. If you were as perfect as the computer, you would still have those files it just consigned to electronic oblivion.

Yet there are people out there — a lot of them — who want nothing more than to be perfect, to seduce the machine with their skill. This computer-human relationship is so new we don't have words to describe it. If you pass an entire night on a porch swing with your beloved, talking about horses and trees, words like love and bliss are available and more or less adequate. If you literally forget to eat and sleep in order to write an intellectual masterpiece of computer code, maybe obsession or fascination applies, but they don't really describe the experience.

Maybe one of my own computer adventures will give you a sense of the uncanny quality that these man-machine encounters can have. A few years ago I lived in a wood-heated cabin on a hilltop in Oregon, where I was writing a word processing program. A lot of disks had been filled with code in a few days, a lot of sleep and meals missed. My sole aim was to create this wonderful program, and with my Apple humming away on power from a portable gas generator, I felt completely removed from the mortal world, in a kind of rapture.

Outside, a storm blew in as I worked. Then bam! — lightning struck a tree just outside the house. Sparks flew all over my desk, zapping my pile of backup disks and resetting the computer to its dumbest state. As I got up off the floor, I realized I might have lost all copies of my great program. Suddenly and thoroughly mortal again, I began issuing a barrage of commands to the computer to try to save its memory of my program. I tried about a half dozen truly arcane things without effect. Then I found a command that worked. The screen filled with the program, just as I had left it. I stepped back. The computer had crashed blindly into nature and survived. Its little red lights were blinking, its disk drive spinning. How can I say it — I was in love.

Even so, my fondness for people came before my fondness for computers, and after that first infatuation waned a bit, I realized I remained more attached to humans than to machines. Starting with old vacuum-tube radios that needed "warming up" until they glowed with soft, internal light, I have seen a lot of technology in my life. Unlike my young friend, I've had time to adjust to the sheer behavioral distance between computers and people, to learn that quirky human nature is, after all, my nature. Maybe somebody should organize a seminar for him, and present humans as a technical breakthrough. It's true we're kind of old-fashioned — we need time to warm up — but on a porch swing in the moonlight, we have no equal. Consider: Powered only by lemonade, we can imagine the inside of a star.

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