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Social Studies

My Space

By Vincent Williams | Posted 10/25/2006

So, my sweet, angelic cherub of a child kicked my laptop over a couple of weeks ago. Oh yeah, she busted it up real good. As you can probably guess, a whole lot of my life is tied up in that thing, so I went over to the neighborhood computer guy to see about getting it fixed. Now, if you have your own "neighborhood computer guy," you know how this works: He's not going to charge as much as the big-box box store computer repair person, but it's also not going to be done as quickly. So time goes on, and every now and then I drop by his shop to check on the status of my computer. Since the "neighborhood" part is really stressed in our relationship, I end up spending a fair amount of time there discussing important issues, like our wives' pound cake recipes, Uplifting the Race, and whether or not T.O. was really trying to commit suicide. It's kind of like a postmodern barbershop. On the way out, I gently nudge him along about the repair, and he laughs and says, "I know, I know--you need it back because a computer is like a toothbrush. You really shouldn't share them."

The essential truth of that statement just floored me. In 2006, you really shouldn't share a computer with other people. It goes without saying that all of my old writing, music, reference pieces, and other personal and professional data are on there, but it goes deeper than that. There's a level of intimacy with the machine itself. I've been using my wife's for stuff that just had to be done, and, yeah, it feels off. The weight and heft of it is wrong, the keys have a different click to them, the desktop icons are arranged weird. When I use my wife's machine, I have a visceral discomfort, because it's like I'm using someone else's personal property. Like a toothbrush.

This fascinates the hell out of me, because I would argue that this type of proprietary feeling about a computer is fairly new. It's only in the past couple of years that laptops have 1) gotten cheap enough that more folks could get them, 2) gotten small and light enough so that most folks could take them to and fro, and 3) gotten powerful enough that they could serve the same purpose that desktops have traditionally, holding enough information to make it worth your time. When you couple these economic, physical, and technical advances with the concurrent proliferation of wireless access to the internet, I'd argue that our culture has seen a noteworthy societal shift.

This is particularly true when you focus on the wireless part of the conversation. The line between personal and public space has been blurring for the last decade and half just because of cell phones. It's unbelievable how much you hear about people's lives out in the world, because we all imagine a level of privacy from the phone that just doesn't exist. Wireless access just takes it to the next level. If I'm sitting on a park bench in the city and, because I can pick up a signal, am able to write this column, while simultaneously talking on the phone with my brother and downloading the J Dilla Donuts album he can't believe I don't have, isn't the area around the bench mine?

It's ironic that my computer guy is the one who made me think about all of this stuff. I love the concept of the neighborhood computer guy. He's cut from the same cloth as the dude who was repairing televisions 30 years ago and the guy repairing VCRs 20 years ago. Pretty much, every community I've ever seen has a neighborhood computer guy proudly running a small business out of a storefront. He's one of the small-business people who personify a neighborhood but, depending on what neighborhood you're in, are slowly getting pushed out. I wonder how these new computer values affect him. And, if something happens to him, I wonder what I'll do the next time my little angel and computer have a little dustup?

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