She killed time

by Rowan Lear


This is a story of a woman who turned into a computer. She doesn’t remember exactly when or how it happened.

But she recalls when time transformed – from something immense and abstract and unknowable into something segmented and quantified and measured. Seconds, minutes, hours and days were adopted as standard units of measurement. The world grew structured by schedules and the rhythms of clockwork. Tasks belonged to projects, and projects were assigned in order of priority, and time limits were applied to verify maximum output.

In this way, she learned to process vast amounts of information and generate a range of responses. She performed analysis on her networks and regulated her communications on a number of levels. She had periods of intense activity and high output and periods of data collection and energy-generation. But free time was inefficient, a sign of disorder and to be eliminated.

She was not autonomous but relied on regular inputs and outputs, between which a process of synthesis occurred. Molecules in the atmosphere entered her lungs and exited as different molecules. Fuel was taken in, warmth and movement and power was generated, and unused products quickly expelled. Some of her inputs travelled thousands of kilometres to reach her, to be processed by other machines before being ingested in liquid form, accelerating her processing power. Her nails and hair grew at a regular speed, and she noted that applying a certain combination of chemicals could alter their hue and enable more efficient social interaction with other computers.

She analysed other machines – those that did much of her work for her. She recognised her kin in simple machines, who excelled in a singular task, but she was programmed to replicate the movements of the complex machines that effortlessly executed multiple actions. A computer is a revolutionary machine, she calculated. It turned over, repeated, reset.

Her right wrist was the first sign. It stiffened, bones brittled, muscle mumbled. She wore a bracelet of bright copper to plug fresh ions into her bloodstream. Then she detected that the smallest digits on each hands would not straighten. They turned outwards slightly, growing like claws. The energy of straightening those tendons had been reallocated to her remaining fingers, enabling methodical movement on the keyboard or a productive grip on the writing implement. She computed that this was not a mechanical failure, but a mark of exceptional efficiency, the logical evolution of becoming ever more effective at work.

And yet she observed as computers around her failed. Their responses slowed, their calculations became erratic. Their hardware or their wetware was visibly degraded, often around the eyes or mouth. Other times, an internal failure was only revealed when they output strings of nonsensical data. Sometimes they crashed, and sometimes this was terminal.

One day, she stopped and watched as snowflakes tumbled towards the earth. She noticed they were many and yet infinitesimally distinct. She noted their differing speeds and intensities of movement, their flits and flails, their swerves and surrenders. That they sometimes repelled each other, and other times clung together. That they lived short, bright lives or withstood long winters. That they appeared without announcement and disappeared without protest.

She realised that snowflakes did not organise time, they disorganised it. And she waited, holding her breath, wondering if she too, could live in that time.


Rowan Lear is an artist and writer, interested in time and sensation. Her materials are old and new media, found images and objects, and language itself. She co-organises wrkwrkwrk, a London-based feminist study group, and is a PhD candidate as part of Thinking the Image at UWL, researching gesture in photographic practice.

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