Dirt: The season of tabs
Why the trackpad seems drunk
Alex Aciman on hoarding aspirations while slowing his computer down
Right now my new Macbook Air is buckling under the strain of 97 active Chrome tabs that have bloomed like black mold in my browser over the last five months. Now every other app is slow to open—some don’t open at all—the trackpad seems sluggish and half-awake as if in a state of drunkenness, and every word I type appears on the screen with a noticeable delay.
I arrive at this place four or five times a year, often at the changing of the seasons. It always happens the same way. Slowly my main browser window with gmail begins to balloon as I click on links people have sent me, or fall into twitter sinkholes where one thread leads me to another, which leads me to an article in The Times, which leads me to another hyperlinked article from 2014. Soon this window becomes so cluttered with tabs as to be unusable. That’s when I open another window, which like the inciting incident in a thriller, sets off a predictable series of events that will quickly overwhelm me. By the time I reach 97, my tabs are no longer a mere collection of articles I hope to read, they are also links to books I want to buy, books I don’t want to buy but think I do, songs from TV shows whose lyrics I’ve googled, websites of clothing designers I can’t afford, the Wikipedia pages of small French villages I want to visit, Wikipedia pages of philosophical principles I don’t understand, Imdb pages of actors who played bit roles in Billy Wilder movies, fuzzy JStor scans of essays from the ‘70s, gins that won’t be exported to the US for years still, twitter mega-threads about Grace Kelly, and countless pictures of birds. These tabs are a chronicle of all the various places my mind has drifted to over the last few months—all the threads that have tugged at my attention. Often I can remember where I was when a particular tab was opened, although sometimes I can’t and I’ll sit there baffled for 15 minutes trying to remember why I looked up “Kirk Douglas real name.”
After almost ten years of this, I’ve realized that my eclectic mix of tabs is not actually a laundry list of interesting things I intend to look into in earnest; instead they represent the building blocks of the person I think I ought to be. If I were to read all these articles, order all these books, go to those French villages, I might finally become the person I’d always felt I should one day become. By collecting tabs, I’m hoarding aspirations. This tug of war between who I am and who I think I ought to be is the reason I collect tabs. Tabs are like a personal, arcane archival system for obligations I am hoping to put off. The point isn’t that I will eventually get around to looking at these tabs; the point is to hold onto the hope of one day getting to them before realizing I won’t. These tabs, which at first look like the blossoming flowers of self-actualization, gradually morph into an oppressive force nearing 100. Working under these conditions is as dizzying as working on a cluttered desk or in a messy room.
Like the 5pm arrival of computer eye strain, or the month-long bouts of the sofa-induced illness known as Hurty Neck, I had long assumed that this habit was a product of the internet. But the fact is, this process of collecting aspirations exists for me in the physical world as well. Occasionally, one of my parents will hand me a newspaper clipping, which I’ll keep sometimes for years without ever getting to it but always meaning to. There’s the tower of books purchased a decade ago from bookstores that no longer exist. There is artwork rolled up in poster tubes, which I still have not yet realized will never actually end up getting framed. The internet browser took my personal Library of Alexandria and digitized the archives. To the right of my gmail is an article sent to me in April by my father. I’ll get to it eventually, I tell myself, at which point, I’ll finally be a complete person.
I hold on as long as I can, sometimes weeks or even a month longer than is reasonable as my computer spins interminable pinwheels and everything stops working. But when my computer fans begin to hiss, I know it’s time to plan for the inevitable. Slowly, over a period of many days, I start culling tabs, trying to catch up on the backlog, and as I begin clicking through articles that have been open so long that they’re now entirely irrelevant both to me and to the world, I have a brief moment of lucidity. In that split second, I decide to close all the tabs at once. Suddenly I feel light and unburdened, and wonder why I had waited so long to do something so obvious. With this blank slate before me, I tell myself that next time around, I’ll be better about it, knowing that I won’t.—Alex Aciman