In 2001, my family home had a room whose door was always locked inappropriately. Ask my mom what was inside, and she would talk for minutes, pointing out that fiery accent wall or the charm of those Tuscan-inspired bathroom tiles before visibly sagging. “It’s the computer room,” she finally admits.
Today, computers are as essential as livers, and the shame surrounding owning the former is as incomprehensible as it would be for the latter. But in 2001, my mother’s hesitation made sense. Laptops were rare; if a middle-class family owned a PC, it was relegated to the ugliest room in the house, where it dominated. Ours stood spookily in the same windowless dungeon to which my father’s “entertainment tower” of CD and cassette players had been exiled. Below lay a menacing understory of cords and power strips that were forever tangled in the casters of our desk chair as it moved forward, eliciting some of my father’s most inspired curses.
When my parents bought the computer, I was forbidden to use it, which made me determined to use it. Sneaky computer use wasn’t as simple as opening a laptop screen and opening an incognito window. The thing took a good 10 minutes to boot up and talked to me the whole time, playing its startup music at a volume that must have been audible from the nearby town. For me, a computer was an exciting new way to play, and I couldn’t understand the resignation my dad wore on his face every time he visited the computer room. I still didn’t recognize the same resignation he wore at the door of his downtown office, the same resignation of adults everywhere.
Now, of course, most of us who were banned from using our parents’ primitive computers are required to use them all day for work. As computers have become faster and more compact over the years, the time we are expected to spend working with them has in turn increased. Would I have been so eager to devote hours to this devilishly difficult puzzle game, Chip’s Challenge, if I had known what lay ahead just two decades later? Hard to say. All I know is that booting up my computer no longer inspires excitement. In fact, I don’t even start it infrequently anymore – it’s always on, ready to enlist so I can start working much faster.
Computers used to be about Neopets and AIM, but now they’re necessary business tools, as indispensable as the briefcase, and mine only annexed more of my life when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in 2020. At least before office workers were sent to work from home, the office required separation between work and the rest of life. Travel was miserable, bosses were suffocating, and the spaces themselves were vectors for all sorts of irritations and diseases. But the forced separation made sense. In the office, I used a PC whose only role was to help me work. At home, I might open a few work emails, but my laptop was mostly for non-work tasks: writing poems, shopping.
Some workers have been lucky enough to weather the pandemic in homes with offices. They didn’t have to disrupt their own sleep hygiene by working hunched over in bed all day. But for those of us who live in cramped, dingy apartments, I say bring back the computer room and its cramped, dingy legacy. Certainly, even the most scuzziest apartment building can manage a kiosk to house a PC or two. Above all, behind the door to the computer room, there was only one thing to do: be on the computer. Maybe there were no windows. There might not even be any light except for a bare light bulb or a crackling desk lamp. In our computer rooms, we got rid of all the decorative things that make other rooms look nice. It was the computer house, and we only went there when it was time to work.
The pandemic has taken its toll on all of us, and we who have been able to work from home since its inception (myself included) recognize that we are luckier than most. I’m not out there delivering sandwiches in the rain or interacting with hundreds of customers a day behind a counter. The main risk of the pandemic for me concerns my mental health. Yet imagine what a modern computer room could do to keep us sane! Imagine if even at home, even in 2021, you had the ability to distinguish between “computer time” and “human time”. I daydream about that, then curl into the goblin posture I’m forced to adopt to work in bed, sighing as I open my laptop.
Rax King is the author of Tacky: love letters to the worst culture we have to offer (Vintage), now available.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and uploaded to this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content on piano.io