Erotic Computing

Webster's Weekly, February 10, 1995

by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.

The data aren't in yet on the Psychology HyperSyllabus, entering its third week as I write. Compelling a short writing assignment was intended to demonstrate how easy and natural it is to react to a reading when you have an email button embedded in the assignment. How was I to know the Web server would go down the afternoon before the assignment was due and stay down until an hour before class? Or that Netscape, launched from a Prefs file on floppy so the student can carry a link-trail, newsgroup history, and email address around to any computer on campus, would seek the Mac on which the software had been installed, confusing the MacWary with preremptory "Connect to Psychology Mac" dialogue boxes?

The first real involvement with a personal system, the awareness of a universe of resources a few links away, is so fragile. Type a difficult paragraph, anxiously find a pull-down menu option, fill in a confusing dialogue window ... and the sucker freezes, beeps, tells you "Connection refused by host." It's all over. How many times have I assured students and colleagues that the new setup I was about to show them was exciting, powerful, surprisingly easy -- then seen the anxiety, the frustration and hostility as once again the system proved itself uninterested in dealing with mere humans?

There have been some good moments: hearing surprise as the auditorium overhead shows the whole Aeneid loading from the single linked phrase, laughter at Freud in his slip. I showed a student how to call up the course homepage and follow a couple of links, then returned half an hour later to shut down the Mac and saw under Netscape's Go menu a row of footprints leading from Haverford Psychology to a Web subject-listing and thence to Art, Le WebLouvre, Expressionism, Dali, and the JPEGed "Persisitence of Memory." Minds love to work this way, Freud knows.

As I reflect on the extent of my preoccupation with this latest project -- waking before dawn with a fading dream-image of clicking on a link to something, finding my thoughts in Quaker Meeting meandering out to new Web resources rather than centering down on the quiet room, the hard wood, the crackling fire -- it seems I've been waiting all my life for Webspace. My own learning -- what I recall of it from high school, college, and graduate school -- was always divergent rather than convergent, as I allowed a compelling novel or an inspiring lecture to send me off after more of Eliot, Dostovevsky, or Freud rather than on to the next reading in the syllabus, and trusted my memory rather than note-taking. I loved to discover that I could recall phrases and images from the books and films by which I'd been moved, when something reminded me of a character or gesture ... and that each image led to another. When I acquired a search-for-text-string utility for my first UCSD p-System Apple I realized I'd someday turn to my library and call out a phrase, have the book spring to hand, open at the pencilled margin where a younger Doug had found something to which he thought he might one day return.

Next week: purple footprints.

Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <>

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Copyright (C) Douglas Davis 1995. All rights reserved.