In 2001, my family home contained one room whose door was always uninvitingly shut. Ask my mother what was inside, and she’d speechify for minutes, pointing out this spirited accent wall or the charm of those Tuscan-inspired bathroom tiles before visibly sagging. “That’s the computer room,” she’d finally admit.
Today, computers are as essential as livers, and shame surrounding one’s ownership of the former is as incomprehensible as it would be for the latter. But in 2001, my mother’s hesitation made sense. Laptops were uncommon; if a middle-class family owned a PC, it was banished to whichever room of the home was ugliest, where it dominated. Ours loomed creepily in the same windowless dungeon to which my dad’s “entertainment tower” of CD and cassette players had been exiled. Beneath it spread a forbidding understory of cords and power strips that were forever tangling in the wheels of our desk chair as it scooched along, drawing out some of my father’s most inspired cusses.
Before office workers were sent to work from home, the office necessitated a separation between work and the rest of one’s life.
The moment my parents bought the computer, I was prohibited from using it, which made me determined to use it. Sneaky computer use wasn’t as simple as cracking open a laptop’s screen and opening an incognito window. The thing took a solid 10 minutes to boot up and tattled on me the whole time, belting out its start-up music at a volume that must have been audible from the next town over. To me, a computer was a thrillingly forbidden new way to play, and I didn’t understand the resignation my father wore on his face every time he visited the computer room. I didn’t yet recognize it as the same resignation he wore out the door to his office downtown, the same resignation of grown-ups everywhere.
Now, of course, most of us who were banned from using our parents’ primitive computers are required to use them all day long for work. As computers have grown speedier and more compact over the years, the amount of time we’re expected to dedicate to working with them has increased in turn. Would I have been so eager to devote hours to that devilishly difficult puzzle game, Chip’s Challenge, if I’d known what was awaiting me a mere two decades later? Hard to say. All I know is that booting up my computer no longer inspires excitement. In fact, I rarely even boot it up anymore—it’s always on, ready to be conscripted into service so I can begin work that much faster.
Computers were once about Neopets and AIM, but now they’re necessary professional 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 necessitated a separation between work and the rest of one’s life. Commuting was miserable, bosses were suffocating, and the spaces themselves were vectors for every manner of irritation and disease. But the forced separation was meaningful. At the office, I used a PC whose only role was to help me work. At home, I might open the odd work email, but my laptop was primarily for non-work tasks: writing poems, shopping.
For those of us who live in cramped, dingy apartments, I say bring back the computer room and its cramped, dingy legacy.
Some workers have been fortunate enough to weather the pandemic in homes with offices. They haven’t had to play havoc on 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. Surely, even the scuzziest apartment building can manage a kiosk to house a PC or two. Importantly, behind the door of the computer room, there was only one thing to do: be on the computer. There may not have been windows. There may not even have been light, save for a bare bulb or sputtering desk lamp. In our computer rooms, we dispensed with all the ornamental things that make other rooms pleasant. It was the computer’s house, and we visited only when it was time to work.
The pandemic has taken a toll on us all, and we who have been able to work from home since its beginning (myself included) recognize that we’re luckier than most. I’m not outside delivering sandwiches in the rain or liaising with hundreds of customers per day behind a counter. The pandemic’s chief risk to me has been to my mental health. Still, imagine what a modern-day computer room could do to keep us sane! Imagine if even at home, even in 2021, you had the option to demarcate between “computer time” and “human time.” I daydream about this, and then I hunch over again into the goblin’s 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), out now.
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