Reem Hilu’s upcoming book examines the entrance of computers into domestic life.
In an age in which computers and digital media pervade our professional and personal lives, a trend only accelerated by the pandemic, it can be easy to forget that there was a time when computers were first introduced into the home sphere and families and individuals needed to navigate the roles the technology would take in their lives. Reem Hilu, assistant professor of film and media studies and a scholar of feminist media and the history of computing and gaming, is documenting this era in her upcoming book, Companionate Computing: Early Home Computers and Digital Relationality.
“We are now familiar with thinking about our laptops and phones as highly intimate technologies, but in the 1980s this was not necessarily the case,” Hilu explained. “I am especially interested in the different relationships that people were encouraged to form with and through computers – seeing them as friends, surrogate children, and even couples therapists.”
Yes, even couples therapists. Computer programs such as Interlude (1980) and Lovers or Strangers (1982) promised to help couples optimize and improve their relationship by interviewing each partner about their romantic preferences and desires and guiding how that information was shared between the couple.
“People have talked about the 1970s and 1980s as a time when ideals for relationships and intimacy came to put increasing importance on more communication and disclosure between partners and families as a way to build healthy and strong relationships,” Hilu explained. The technologies and software she studies developed from these ideals, as many families invited home computers to take an active role in mediating their relationships.
“When the computer gets embedded into these intimate relationships, it doesn’t just encourage people to share more – it also takes a role in orchestrating how people relate to each other in unexpected ways,” Hilu added. Therapeutic games from this era would typically avoid prompting individuals to fully communicate their thoughts and desires with their partners. “Instead,” Hilu explained, “the program would often encourage each member of the couple to maintain some mystery or secrecy from each other, even as they were encouraged to share as much as possible with the program.”
These trends continue to evolve in today’s increasingly interconnected world, Hilu noted. “One of the things I explore in my project is how the introduction of computers into the intimate space of the home caused people to rethink the nature of seemingly established ideas about how relationships work,” she said. “With the pandemic, I think a lot of people are again renegotiating expectations about how we conduct relationships, what it means to be close to somebody, and what role digital media plays in these encounters.”
The rise of dating app usage during the pandemic is one surprising shift. Hilu pointed out that, although the same established websites and apps are being used, the expectations users bring into them — balancing online and offline sides to the relationship, and even the definitions of starting or maintaining a romantic relationship — are being dynamically renegotiated.
The approach to understanding digital media taken in Companionate Computing also shapes the courses Hilu teaches. Her seminar “Identity and Culture in the Digital Age” tackles a breadth of topics, including digital games and labor, histories of digital warfare, and surveillance technologies like facial recognition and digital mapping.
“I am so excited to be teaching this seminar, and I am lucky to have a really smart, funny, and engaged group of students in this class,” Hilu said. She encourages them to bring in examples of “alternative, experimental, and artistic misappropriations” of modern technology. “One example that my students brought to my attention are Instagram accounts that intentionally resist the dominant aesthetic style of the app and instead embrace intentionally noisy and unappealing designs. In doing so, they resist some of the ways that Instagram commodifies and aestheticizes so many aspects of everyday life.”
Through these discussions, Hilu and her students are diving into questions and changes currently unfolding all around us: “What role does digital media play in how we make and maintain friendships and romances, how we engage with strangers in public spaces, and how we see ourselves as part of larger networks or communities?”