Introductions feel so forced all the time, don’t they? I’m expected to condense my selfhood into a small, digestible piece of literature for the world to devour, preferably focusing on my “work”, whatever that means. What would you like me to say now? Age, gender, life expectancy, race, religion, job title—I don’t think any of it sums up my personhood, my humanity, in a way that feels gentle. To be clear, no one asked me to do it this way, no one ever does, but when you live in the academy you come to learn that when someone asks you to “say a few words about yourself”, what they really mean is “don’t waste my time with anything small; tell me about your latest project, your dissertation, your career.” What about everything else? What about those parts of me that the university hasn’t yet commodified—my loves, my losses, my soft, harmonic inconsistencies that could never be monetized? What about those moments when I feel most human, most seen, most held, most respected? Don’t you want to know about that, rather than my latest “project”? Isn’t that more exciting than data sets and field notes?
I wonder why so much of myself is so often reduced to this smallness. I wonder if saying that out loud makes it anymore digestible. I wonder if anyone will care about those tiny intricacies of my existence. I wonder when the university will stop making me feel so insufferably small and emotional.
I grew up in Pennsylvania in a tech-filled home. My father worked as the head of IT for a small liberal arts college and was always obsessed with bringing home whatever new technology the university was using. My first computer was one of those giant see-through Macintosh desktops that now can be found in museums across the country. Seeing one of those in a museum for the first time sent me into an existential crisis. I didn’t think I was old enough for the device that let me play Oregon Trail on weeknights to be on display in a museum as a historical artifact. Soon this old MacBook will probably be on display somewhere too.
I’ve always been a little bit afraid of robots. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t understand them or because they lack a level of humanity I need to feel held. Things that pretend to be human but aren’t always make me feel uneasy. Wax figures, scarecrows, sculptures, why are they all trying so hard to be like us? Why would they ever want to be human in the first place?
The first time I used html was in trying to make my Myspace look cool enough to impress my top 8. I didn’t know what it was or what I was doing, but I felt just like a hacker from that movie Hackers, diving into an underground internet full of sad teenagers trying to put Blink-182 songs on their profiles. I copied and pasted code I could never decipher into the ether and came out with black and pink lettering and an auto-played punk-pop tune to annoy the masses. I’m convinced this is a universal millennial experience, one that defines our generation as the in-between babies of a technology-filled future. Before kids were chronically online, we were copying code for our Myspaces. Digital technology is one of those things I absolutely hate but am absolutely obsessed with. My screentime is incredibly unhealthy. My liked videos on TikTok number in the hundreds. My Instagram posts are carefully curated. I am the online generation, brain rotten from the LED lights and consumption of memes, world view decimated by the access to information.
But I’ve seen the light behind the screen, the connection, the organizing, the love. I know this stupid robot can be something beautiful if the human fingers behind its creation could just stop and rework the wiring. When the US erupted in protest in 2020 and Instagram started being used to help protestors organize and avoid violence, when TikTok became a place to share news and safety tips, when social media and Zoom let us connect when a virus was keeping us apart, when museums began opening up collections to be viewed online more easily by source communities—this machine can breed care, connection, safety, light. I’ve seen that firsthand.
I don’t want to be afraid of robots anymore, so I’m here, in a program dedicated to nurturing the relationship between human and technology, flesh and metal, knowing and processing. Maybe I’ll never stop hating technology. Maybe I’ll never stop being afraid of non-human, human-like creations. Maybe I’ll delete my Instagram and trash my TikTok. But maybe I’ll be reminded of the light within it all. Maybe I’ll learn to use the machine for something beautiful, something light, something loving. Maybe this space will show me my Myspace skills weren’t learned in vain. Maybe I’ll make something worthy of museum display. Maybe I’ll find a place to be held amongst the academic turmoil. Maybe I’ll code my way into a humanity I find fulfilling. Maybe I’ll be a digital humanist. Who’s to say.