Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers by Leigh Alexander
reviewed by Annalisa Moretti
Increasingly, many archivists find themselves faced with digital records and, sometimes, the equipment or emulated environment required to run them. This requires an understanding of digital history, a history many archivists have lived through, which we are living through right at this moment. It’s this living history — the experience of interacting with technology which we have been engaging in for decades now, which is so integrated into our lives and is a witness to so much of our passions, dreams, and hard work — with which Leigh Alexander’s Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers is concerned. A brief, satisfying read with truly beautiful prose, available in e-book format, it chronicles Alexander’s life with computers from her childhood exploration of adventure games on the Apple IIe and an adolescence spent on the early internet, to her present career as a game journalist and her struggles as a prominent woman on social media.
In the early chapters of Breathing Machine, we are brought back to the mid-80s, when Alexander, at the tender of age of five, is trying to learn how to commune with her father’s computer: “An arcane language lives inside this box. The computer can understand things, so long as I put them to it in exactly the right way.” The “magic spell” which is needed to command the computer to do her bidding is later mirrored in the adventure games she learns to play, patiently convincing the game, in whatever particular language the parser could understand, to go north, climb the mountain, turn the key. “Those old things were blunt objects, the kind that make you think about how many tiny corners must have existed all over the surface of the very first wheel,” she writes of these games’ gradually loading graphics. “Slowly, a line drawing loads, etching a graphic abstraction of a path, a house, a forest, into the black mirror of your boxy computer screen. You are an international spy. You must find the wizard. You are standing outside the house. You are on a path facing EAST.”
Lately, Alexander has begun revisiting these games of her childhood, and uploading her explorations to YouTube in a series called Lo-Fi Let’s Plays. (Let’s Plays are a genre of video game walkthroughs in which the player provides commentary as he or she plays the game.)
Though I am around the same age as Alexander, my family’s first computer wasn’t purchased until the mid-90s, and so my experience with computers of this era was limited to elementary school computer class, where we played Oregon Trail and typed out our Christmas letters to Santa Claus once a year under the watchful eye of Sister Mary, the computer teacher. So I found these chapters endlessly fascinating, as though they took place in an alternate reality to the one I experienced.
As Alexander moves into the internet era, however, things become more familiar to me. The internet she describes seems like such a real, physical place, much like the virtual worlds of those early adventure games. Our desire to make digital space physical is apparent especially in the names we gave (and continue to give) things associated with it. “You browsed the web with Netscape Navigator, like a starship captain,” Alexander points out — a trend that continues with today’s browsers, such as Internet Explorer and Safari. But today “the whimsy is gone. There’s no more of the childish magic that birthed “web rings” — like faery rings, groups of affiliated websites you could travel through in order.” And remember guest books? This is an especially potent image for those of us in the archives profession, a place where you’d scrawl your name to let the world know you’d been here, a record of your passage — “At one time, it seemed almost every website had one. Now, none of them do.” More than simply a lack of whimsy, there is of course a darkness to the internet, as anyone who has stumbled across a terrifying image, tangled with a troll, been hacked, or shaken their head at conspiracy websites can attest. And Alexander certainly does not shy away from discussing that aspect of life online – as a highly visible female writer on social media, she experiences abuse and threats on a daily basis.
For the last few months I’ve been following a fantastic Twitter account, @wwwtxt, which has been spewing out contextless quotes from the early internet (defined as pre-Web 1.0, 1980-1994). Here, on its associated website, you can read about the project’s creator, Daniel Rehn, and his methodology, and the mission behind the project. One of the reasons he gives is especially striking to me: “to trace and document the origins of net culture”.
These origins are becoming further and further away for each generation. The experiences of those who participate in the birth of the digital era are so important for us, as archivists, to read. Digital records and machines are more than just the sum of their parts. The act of making, using, and interacting with them is also integral to understanding them. It’s the context to their content. And in this brief, transitory time in the digital era that we are living in, we must remember the mayfly existence of these programs, devices, virtual worlds, and ways of life. As Alexander puts it, “Everything I write in this moment will be a relic […] every single thing.”
Annalisa Moretti graduated from Simmons College in 2013. Currently, she works at MIT Libraries in Curation, Preservation, and Reformatting Services. She is the Website and Social Media Coordinator for REPS.