Breathing Machine: Leigh Alexander's memoir of adolescence on the early web

Gen Xers like to complain about not having the flying cars they were promised. But it was the Boomers who were promised flying cars. Unless you're that old, the joke goes, you were promised a cyberpunk dystopia: presently under construction for the Millenials to enjoy.

To kids growing up in the 1990s though— born in an empty space between these "generations" of entertainment marketing—such grand concepts were drowned by the mundane reality of the early web. Too young to be on the pre-AOL net, when it was still cool, but old enough for it to remain a new and strange land, this thinly-sliced cohort experienced a certain yearning bathos, a search for the real in a medium freshly proven otherwise.

In Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers, Leigh Alexander captures a powerful scent of what it was like to be born into computer gaming's golden age, to have a taste of a "world bigger than the one you can touch" only to spend adolescence in a world of chatrooms, terrible internet speeds and false frontiers.

My earliest memories are of the breathing machines, and they promised me from the time I was born that anything could exist, that all things were solvable, that anything could be brought into striking, vector-lined reality if you had imagination enough. That there was always someplace else to go than here, where I had to do math or wear a neon scrunchie for dance class.

But, of course, it's not that simple. Alexander's story is suffused with a sense of displacement, of getting a brief glimpse of something wonderful before normalcy sets back in. There is happiness in the moments shared playing with friends, then resentment at the crowded superficiality of multiplayer gaming. Slowly, the web becomes one with all culture, as tribal and misogynist and dumb as it ever was—just better at explaining away and denying its own nature.

There's no liberating conclusion, either, only the growing awareness that memories, when tied to things both virtual and obsolete, become all the more fleeting. The uncertain life in the machines is seen, but not yet understood. Alexander's slim ebook, at 65 pages, reflects the fact that she is still young and ready to leave it at that, for now.

But I hope she carries on, when the time's right. Because it's my story, as well. And, I guess, the story of quite a few of you, too.