Physical spaces hold our memories for us. Sitting at my desk, I feel all the time I’ve spent here reading novels. I remember phone calls with friends in highschool and writing code late at night and drawing badly. The desk makes me feel comfortable, curious, ready for work. When we move to a new dorm room, a new apartment, the new space feels foreign, alien to us. Proust wrote beautifully about this sensation in his novel In Search of Lost Time. Even for those as neurotic as Proust’s narrator, time has a way of settling us into a space. We make it our own somehow, put up a poster or a note, hang a print. And slowly the space becomes a home. It usually elicits joy and comfort, but there can be sadness and boredom and loneliness too, if that’s what we’ve been feeling in the space.
Do digital spaces have the same mood-shaping power? Like my desk, websites and apps organize my behavior and mood. I’m distracted, slightly impulsive on Instagram, focused on Google Docs, relaxed on Netflix. But these sites constantly change, whether I’m writing or viewing new content. Many digital spaces are in a constant flux of content. Once the novelty wears off, there’s new content, new layouts for our favourite apps. Unlike physical spaces, the digital spaces we inhabit don’t always allow us to settle into them, get used to the layout.
Perhaps the most constant thing in my digital life is my computer background. I’ve had the same background for several months and I barely notice it now. But opening my computer today, I do feel a sense of sameness, of comfort, that I just didn’t have when I opened the computer for the first time to a background I did not choose. We’ve all experienced the sense of novelty, foreignness, slight discomfort when the layout of an app or website we frequently use changes. This suggests we do “settle in” to digital spaces just like physical spaces. We get used to them, comfortable in some way.
To settle into a space, we modify it. In digital and physical spaces, there’s always design points we did not choose–the bricked up fireplace in my dorm room, the toolbar at the top of my computer screen. To cope with these given setups, we try in some sense to make them our own. I’ve spent hours arranging my bedroom, putting up little notes and posters and drawings, making it look nice. So too in digital spaces. We can customize app icons, the background images, and the lighting properties. We choose which apps we have, and how we organize our files.
A key difference, though, between the digital and physical spaces is that all modifications must first be made possible, approved, by the software or hardware provider. While an architect or interior designer steps away from a home after it’s been designed, the tech companies behind our devices are ever-present, constraining the possibilities to beautify the digital. And there’s the constant threat of software updates. The looks and customizations that we’ve grown used to are always subject to potential change.
Several years ago I went through the tedious process of changing the folder icons on my desktop to custom images. My biology folder was a custom DNA symbol, journalism stored behind an icon of a newspaper. I felt like I’d made my computer mine, and it looked good. But as the folders slowly were filtered into other folders, they disappeared from my desktop. And I didn’t replace them, it just didn’t seem that important.
The pace of digital activity, the inconstancy of our pursuits, disincentivizes investment in how computers look and feel. Those I know who have invested the most in the appearance of their computers, and their function, are coders and gamers, people who spend lots of time on their computers doing similar things. Part of this, of course, is that making serious modifications to how a computer looks and feels, say, using a custom built keyboard, requires technical expertise. But there are plenty of free apps that allow the customization of computer function and appearance. Not too many people use them.
Digital spaces are ever-present, but their look and feel is often left to the control of tech companies. I’d like to suggest that part of the way we can improve our relation with technology, to make technology work for us and to get comfortable in digital spaces, is to approach our computers and desktops as mediums for art.
Some artists are doing just that. Much of Molly Soda’s art consists of videos or stills of digital spaces. In one piece, an Instagram live video, Soda does karaoke while viewers comment, and the viewer count slowly drops. In one still, there’s a swarm of image files on her desktop grouped together and highlighted in a thick bunch. Old tumblr photos. In another, the desktop is coated in layers and layers of image file icons with pictures of butterflies.
Some of the art provokes the question: how did she do that? Nostalgia for the internet of the 90’s guides much of her early work. She designed a video game where people can play with this lighthearted aesthetic. Some of her pieces participate in digital fads, like a haul video of supplies purchased for a gallery show.
Each piece of hers suggests that digital space is ours, if we pay attention to it and get creative. The look and feel of the internet, our devices, the content we create, is up to us. We just have to put in some effort. We don’t all have to be artists, of course. But a bit of individuation, creative expression online, can hardly be a bad thing. If we want technology to work for us, let’s start by making it look good for us.