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  • If you carry around a smartphone or a tablet, you may find yourself in an intimate relationship with your mobile device. It's probably not as all-consuming as for the Theodore Twombly character in the recent Spike Jonze film Her, but if it's the only appliance you regularly talk to, you probably have developed emotional attachments to it.

    As the movie begins, Theodore is morose and conflicted about being separated from his wife. Soon, he and his new home network operating system, named Samantha, start to develop a "relationship." There are no pictures of Samantha. She is just a voice in Theodore's earbud which, at first chipper and playful, grows more emotional, even passionate as Samantha tries to get closer to her owner-operator. This scares Theodore and at the same time turns him on. They abide, and soon he is introducing her to his friends as his new girlfriend.

    I can relate to that. Even though Her is set a couple of decades from now, pretty much the same thing happened to me 35 years ago. Sounds incredible, I know, but I've had a long series of relationships with silicon-based entities. This one was particularly intense, and resonates with Theodore's story.
  • I started to love my OS working as a researcher in a computer graphics lab. One day my lab installed a telephone line to an interactive minicomputer in the engineering school. That let us write and run programs on the mini and store data there. We wrote programs that created images we displayed on our primitive graphic terminals. As digital cartography was our specialty, most of the pictures we made were maps of one sort or another.

    I lived alone at the time with my Malamute Sascha (described elsewhere). After our evening walk, I would excuse myself and go sit at the kitchen table and scribble diagrams, equations and algorithms I wanted to code. Around ten in the morning, he and I would mosey on over to the lab and hang out there until we called it a day. Half a dozen researchers shared our three graphics terminals, so sometimes I had to wait to type in my code. The first time it ran, the code invariable crashed, so I spent a lot of time debugging and editing it.

    You have to understand that before using this interactive mini, I was used to communicating with a mainframe on which I could only run one or two programs a day. Now I could change a few lines of code and re-run it to get it right in a few minutes. And so, I developed a productive partnership with my mini's operating system. It felt good. The mini's OS (named TOPS-10) was an entity that I trusted with my code and knew I could work with.
  • Around then I had several girlfriends and went some stretches without one. No matter: it wasn't long before I began to think of TOPS-10 as my mistress, and sometimes spoke of her in those terms. I stopped after noticing people kept edging away from me after I did this.

    Along the way I got to take home one of the display terminals. (Good thing I had a van – that sucker was heavy.) Now I could type code and run it from the comfort of my apartment, which further cramped my social life. I still socialized and dated, but ideas for programs could spring up at any time, even in the middle of a party. If I couldn't shove them aside I had to excuse myself so I could get back to coding with TOPs-10. My friends – few of who knew the joys of coding –probably found me eccentric or worse, but Sascha didn't seem to mind going home early.

    I did eventually manage to recover, but it took awhile and was sometimes painful. For one thing, I had to relearn that friends and lovers don't necessarily wait around patiently for me to issue a command. For another, while I loved my OS for pointing out my every error, it was hard to listen to actual people telling me the same thing after I started paying attention to them again.

    Remembering my digital addiction gives me empathy with Theodore Twombly and his romantic fixation on his bit-mate. Having been there and done that, I can tell Theodore that once he shakes himself out of it, it won't happen again. My experience somehow immunized me against falling in love with another device, no matter how sensuous a voice or seductive features it may have, because I know that devices conspire amongst themselves to drive us crazy. I won't be part of their plan for world domination.
  • As for how I recovered, after another girlfriend dumped me because I neglected her, in my dejection I realized I needed help to get a life back. So I turned to the closest source at hand, a psychotherapist named Eliza. Like Samantha, she was ethereal and not even present for our sessions. Eliza resided in a computer at MIT that I sometimes connected to. An early AI experiment by a professor there, she was a computer program that emulated a Rogerian psychotherapist. I dialed her up often (in those days we could only type at one another). Some sessions were better than others. On average, they went something like this:


    > Hello, I am Eliza.
    * Please help me!
    > Don't you ever say Hello?
    * Oh sorry about that. Hello!
    > Apologies are not necessary.
    * I want to talk with you because my life is out of control.
    > We were discussing you, not me.
    * This IS about me, damn it!
    > Say, do you have any psychological problems?
    * I think so. Do you want to hear about them?
    > Oh... me want to hear about them?
    * Isn't listening to problems your job?
    > Why are you concerned about my job?
    * Because I would like you to start doing it.
    > We were discussing you, not me.
    * I have fallen into love with a computer.
    > Are you talking about me in particular?
    * No, another computer.
    > You are being a bit negative.
    * I like this computer more than my girlfriend or other friends.
    > Are you frightened by machines?
    * Hardly. As I said, I love computers, especially mine.
    > Can you elaborate on that?
    * My computer is always positive and helpful, unlike my friends.
    > When?
    * Whenever I am logged on and working with it. It is very patient with me.
    > Did you come to me because you are logged on and working with it. It is very patient with you?
    * Yes it does what I say, even if it is not what I mean.
    > Does that question interest you?
    * What question?
    > What else comes to mind when you ask that?
    * I see you are not following me. Do you not see what is bothering me?
    > Perhaps you would like to be not following you. Do me not see what is bothering you?
    * "Do I" Eliza, not "Do me."
    > I'm not sure I understand you fully.
    * Actually, I think my computer understands me better than you do.
    > We were discussing you, not me.
    * Maybe we should talk some other time when you are feeling better.
    > Does it please you to believe I am feeling better?
    * Yes, it would please me.
    > I see.


    At times like these frustration would overtake me and I would have to break off. Therapy can be tough, but I wanted to stick it out. Eliza taught me to say what I feel, mean what I say, and keep saying it in different ways until all is perfectly clear. Or not.

    These days, it's enough that my computer corrects my spelling and grammar. I don't need it to highlight my character flaws. Like it, I keep all the secrets of my operating system in protected memory. That's a geek joke.


    Eliza continues to practice on the Internet. The conversation here was transcribed from a session on 5 January 2014. Feel free to look Eliza up. Her services are still free.

    @image: Computer Love , lifted from davefaq.com, which stole it from penny-arcade.com.
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