I’m Sorry, HAL

Whenever anyone sees my laptop, the first thing they comment on is the stickers.

It’s not hard to see why. Every inch of my laptop is covered with them: white ones from the ACLU, orange ones reading DIVEST FROM FOSSIL FUELS, cartoony ones featuring Hamlet characters, little green ones shaped like dinosaurs that are almost definitely meant to be for kids. An EFF sticker: I DO NOT CONSENT TO THE SEARCH OF THIS DEVICE. A round blue one, with a furious looking owl raising a finger: NOT OWL MEN. Another ACLU sticker that ought to read DON’T SPY ON ME, but which is covered up enough by another sticker that it just reads SPY ON ME.

Clubs I don’t belong to. Causes I only sort of support. My laptop isn’t so much a computer at this point as it is an elementary-school collage.

I can recognize my friends’ laptops, too, more easily than I can recognize their backpacks or their cellphones. That one’s the PC, it’s black and looks kind of boring, it kept disconnecting from wifi all last semester; that one’s the one that never has lagging or buffering video, it has a climate sticker on it just like mine, its owner has that thing that two headphones can plug into so we can watch Doctor Who on it; that one’s new, great display but doesn’t have enough stickers on it yet, weirdly enough doesn’t have Microsoft Office installed and probably never will.

There’s something peculiarly personal in a laptop, something that builds a closer connection than a tablet or phone. Maybe it’s their physical presence, their heaviness, the solidity in carrying them around. Maybe it’s the seriousness of them – you play around on your phone, but you work on your laptop. Maybe it’s the practice a lot of people have of naming them – it reminds me of my friends in band/orchestra in high school, who would name their trumpets and violins.

When I first got my laptop I named it, somewhat pretentiously, Liliuokalani, after the last queen of Hawaii – Lily for short. This lasted about five minutes. After that, my friend affectionately semi-affectionately mockingly nicknamed it the Behemoth – his laptop is very small and light, and compared to it, mine seems like a giant. God knows I’ve spent enough time reprimanding him for calling it that (“you’re hurting her feelings!“), but I’ve also caught myself thinking of it as the Behemoth from time to time – though, I hope, with a good deal more fondness.

And it is fondness. This is what the stickers are about, after all, and the naming, and the dull sick swoop of horror when you think you’ve left your laptop in the library or dropped it on the floor. It is true, yes, that these lumps of silicon and glass that we lug around every day are amazingly expensive. No one wants to fork over the cash for a brand-new one even at the best of times.

But it’s also true that we store a fantastic amount of information on these machines, more than we store on anything else. Though we know consciously that people can and do steal enormous amounts of information from our cellphones, we tend to think of cellphones as machines used for communication and fun – not extensions of ourselves, but links with the outside world. Laptops, though, contain huge numbers of documents, often from a very long way back in the past. The Behemoth has the only copy of the first story I ever wrote on a computer, back in 2003, when I was eight years old. Something I care about enough to upload to the Internet to save it? Uh, no thanks. Something I’d be sad if I lost? Absolutely.

The Behemoth also has my favorite browsers downloaded, with all the various extensions I’ve accumulated over the years. It has my favorite IM clients, the hundreds of songs in my iTunes, various assorted books, public keys of people I’ve contacted via PGP, my own public and private key. It has my blacklist for Self-Control, the app you use to prevent you from accessing certain websites of your choice (i.e. Facebook, Twitter) when you need to stop yourself being distracted by the Internet. It has a small Canadian flag at the top of the screen to signify the keyboard I like most, but it can also switch to the Russian, Dvorak, or American keyboards, which I also use, at a moment’s notice. It’s logged into every social media site I use; it has all my bookmarks, for God’s sake.

This laptop is full to the brim of things I like, the small luxuries, conveniences, and customizations that shape my experience in the digital world. Though someone else could certainly use it if they wanted to, it’s clear that it’s no one else’s but mine.

This, I think, is where the slightly confused affection for our laptops comes from: the urge to anthropomorphize them, the urge to decorate them as best we can. Our personal data has seeped into them, like water into a sponge; and we feel attached to them because we are attached to our personal data.

After all, sharing personal information with a human being is usually a sign that you are also beginning to share an intimacy. People writing in diaries will often act as if they are writing to a close friend, and treat the diary itself as if it is something precious. Diaries are, of course, only bound paper and ink, no less artificial than computers; to feel an attachment to an enormously complex and delicate digital brain that serves a very similar purpose may be, as strange as it seems, the most natural thing in the world.


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