A computer of one’s one: a virtual reflection on Virginia Woolf
Six months ago, I was in Cambodia, where I saw houses that jarred me out of complacency, thinking over Woolf’s call “that it is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry” (105). You can read about it here.
Three days ago, my laptop bid me adieu in a very aburpt fashion, unexpected, though even if it had been expected, that wouldn’t have changed a thing, hopefully, it’ll be ok, it’s being “diagnosed” now, but over the last few days, I’ve reframed Woolf’s concept of “room” to fit today’s modern sensibilities.
What a room offered Woolf 80 years ago is not the same thing a simple room offers us now. (Though how I wish!) A lock on the door is supposed to “stand for the power to think for oneself” (106), and although it’s easy enough to agree with her sentiment, what does a lock on adoor really mean to us now? We’re privileged Americans, or, rather, better for me to speak only for myself: I am a privileged American, one who has always known doors and locks, even with my modest up-bringing (growing up, I did not have a room of my own, and once I did have one, it did not have a lock on it.) and yet, and yet, that privacy and freedom Woolf discusses is a known quantity to me.
Today, I share a two bedroom apartment. I do not have a private work space. Even on campus, I share my office. (O how I miss my bourgeois professor office, which I shared with no one!) But, but, what I am denied in physical space I am granted in virtual space.
The virtual space offered in a computer drastically shifts the dynamics and confines of physical space. That is, a room–a physical room–can be privatized within the dimensions of a computer. I’m typing this in a library full of people and yet this is still a private moment. My screen, set wtihin my own visual field, is my room. When the screen is off or the laptop closed, the room becomes a room again, the place I am in becomes that place again, but when the laptop is open, the materiality of the material world is no longer the same. I wade in the infinite ability to venture as far as I want, the virtual room is a room without limits, except material limits, that is, I experience the virtual room cerebrally rather than physically. In this way, the computer truly is the equivalent to Woolf’s room, only better, improved, 21st century, or something like that. In my virtual room, I am un-fettered: I can research, I can play, I can converse and engage in dialogue. I mean: Woolf’s room back in day offered quietude and solace and in that, freedom, but Woolf’s room didn’t have Wikipedia or Google or Gmail chat or even Gmail. Goodness: can you even imagine?
Whereas I am one of those old crones who still writes by hand–reader: even this is drafted by hand, I am writing this in a physical room of almost my own (it’s shared with my office-mate), then I will type it in my virtual room that is housed in a library–and my current writing project is safely protected in handwritten journals and Google docs and email and flashdrives, I am fundamentally destabalized by my lack of virtual room. For instance, one of my characters is going to see Peter and the Wolf–the pun not intended though too convenient to not point out–which I performed more than a decade ago. Without my virtual room, I had to rely on memory, which is faulty at best. I remembered a Russian composed it, so in my physical room, I wrote that Tchaikovsky wrote Peter and the Wolf, embarrassing now that I think about it, because no, Tchaikovsky didn’t write it, Prokofiev did, which I found out only after I could re-enter my virtual room. And here’s the thing: my virtual room can tell me the composer, which I’d gotten wrong, it can tell me the story, which I’d forgotten, I can watch performances galore on YouTube, tell me: Can some dusty old room with a rusty old lock do these things? I think not.
But reader: this is not some monument to the greatness of the internet. No, this is a mourning. I am dependent on my virtual room more than any physical room. For instance: after a long night out, rather than collapse into inebriation, I run and check my email. Rather than appreciate the silence of self-reflection in a room of my own, I click on hyperlinks and hyperlinks and hyperlinks and read blogs and write blogs, and so here I am: sitting in a virtual room all on my own.