The First Computer Mouse Conference

In 2000, my older sister entered a drawing contest through a local newspaper and won a Gateway 2000 desktop computer. She was six at the time, with infuriatingly precocious (to me) hand-eye coordination, so it was less demoralizing to watch her play EA Games’ Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets than to play it myself. This is my first memory of a computer mouse – an early moment of individualization and frustration, but also a portal, peering over her shoulder at a cow-spotted mousepad whose corners curled over time, while she unlocked hidden rooms so fluidly it felt like going for a walk.

Gateway™ mousepad (UK and Ireland), 1998.

On November 9, the first ever Computer Mouse Conference opened its arms to the idea of memory as transportive through the reimagination of the computer mouse. Organized by artist and programmer Emma Rae Norton and new media artist and tech educator Ashley Jane Lewis, it used the mouse – an object still ubiquitous yet already nostalgic – as a lens for complicating broader histories of computing and technology. The conference’s focus held equal space for history, futurity, and somewhere-else’s, for humor, for pain, and, to the delight of conference-goers, for 36-feet of sandwiches.

Invitation to First Computer Mouse Conference, designed by Dana Elkis.

The conference took place on the shiny 12th floor of NYU’s Brooklyn hub, which is also the new home to the university’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where many participants are or once were students. Its programming featured multimedia works by 10 artists, a Build Your Own Mouse workshop with Matt Ross, five talks, and one panel discussion. The contributions were archived in a Risograph zine designed, printed, and hand-bound by Neta Bomani, which included contributors from 12 different countries and cover art by Kalli Retzepi. Doors opened at 3 p.m., every zine was claimed by 4, maybe, or at least before Kalli could get one herself (though Emma, looking out, tucked one away on her behalf). 

Over the course of the day, the conference extended an open-ended invitation to look at an everyday technological object—one that dramatically shifted how people and computers interact—as a jumping off point to imagine a more intentional relationship between bodies and computing technologies. “The intention of this conference,” as Emma and Ashley describe it, “is to address a seemingly uninteresting and ubiquitous device in order to re-frame its relevance to and potential for living with and through computers.” What was telling to me was that most conference participants, however disparate in their approaches, reimagined the mouse as inefficient. There was a shared desire to create opportunities to think about the physical, social, environmental, and economic consequences of one’s actions, and computational systems at large, by slowing down – or rather, by being slowed down. 

Cover of the Computer Mouse Conference Zine, designed by Neta Bomani.

The conference flowed between two main rooms: a glass-walled classroom where artwork was installed, and a large, sunny conference room where the talks and panel took place. The two spaces were connected by a communal area with tables where people chatted and shared a casual dinner. From 3 to 5pm, visitors could wander through the display of (mostly participatory) mouse-related artworks; I arrived early, sheepish with a cold that every New Yorker caught at once, and perused as others trickled in.

Greeting visitors at the door was Jackie Liu’s web app CURSORWORLD, outfitted with two tablets that let users draw customized cursors guided by a chosen intention: “I want to make a cursor that: 1) encourages a good habit 2) is authentically me 3) reduces screen time 4) other (choose-your-own-adventure).” I revisited CURSORWORLD three or four times. Its two-chair setup fostered cursor-making with friends, but the drawing was also a reprieve from social stimulation. A very charming gallery of custom cursors was projected and updated throughout the conference.

A cursor that is authentically me.

Meanwhile, Hannah Tardie’s Red Mouse proposed a full-body mouse from a repurposed antique chair, merging the analogue and the digital as a plushy, motorized sculpture while questioning the feminized labor of an object that holds. Winnie Yoe’s Ton, a handheld mouse in the shape of a tongue, was designed to be a remote control of sorts, which interacts with Google Image Search (though Winnie was still working on the tech behind this). With every unique user, Ton displays an image result from googling his or her name, but pixelates it. Click by click, the user can increase the image’s resolution until they realize, unbeknownst to them, that the image is of them. (To exemplify this, Winnie included a video of Hannah watching Ton unveil a photo of her playing [redacted] in college. Says Hannah, “Nobody knows about my past life.”).

Red Mouse by Hannah Tardie.

Tucked in a far corner was an "exercise in using the computer mouse gently" created by Cezar Mocan, in which a video representation of his body was subject to the user’s control. Thanks to four hours of composited birds-eye footage shot while walking across a warehouse floor, tiny Cezar would follow wherever you moved the cursor, slowly and tirelessly. 

Ton by Winnie Yoe with a video example.

Melanie Hoff and Dan Taeyoung’s Mischief Ouija connected utmost of 20 mice to one computer, inviting collaborative play and rendering the cursor uncontrollable and unpredictable like a ouija planchette. Katya Rozanova made a “Calm down hands mouse,” akin to a weighted anxiety blanket meant to sooth and unsettle, by filling gloves with sand (at one point I wore 3 on each hand and I was, indeed, quite relaxed, then unsettled). I made a zine of “stretches” inspired by my bilateral carpal tunnel and chronic pain. Finally, August Luhrs and Arnab Chakravarty made a mouse called The Itch from a strap-on harness that behaved like an itch that needed to be scratched: once touched, it released a haptic response that couldn’t be ignored. The Itch was displayed, somewhat forebodingly, on the seat of a chair that I wasn’t bold enough to sit in. I gave it a few good pokes.

Katya Rozanova’s Calm Down Hands Mouse.

The Itch by August Lurhs and Arnab Chakravarty with cryptic instructions for use.

The talks began after a few hours of mingling, playing, mouse-making, and sandwich-eating. Emma led by scrolling through women’s lesser-known contributions to computational history and problematizing the phrase “close to the metal” as an expression of distance between bodies and computers (Emma also used the phrase to title her recent and equalling compelling  essay for Real Life). Next up was Mimi Doan with a meditation on the internet as a space of desire – specifically, queer desire – and the click as a wish that transports us to other dimensions. “Nestled within the forward projection of straight time are infinite queer dimensions,” they said, followed by a quote from José Esteban Muñoz, “Here and now is simply not enough.”

Title slide by Mimi Doan. Image shared by emma “doodybrains” rae norton (@doodybrains) on Twitter.

After Mimi wrapped up, Lydia Jessup presented rapid-fire questions meant to explore what human engagement with the computer mouse tells us about the world at large by way of considering alternative mice. What if there was a universal basic mouse? What if there was a mouse bodysuit? A waterproof mouse? An organic mouse that degraded over time? A mouse for bumpy surfaces? A mouse that is a family heirloom? What is a mouse that is bewildering, or worse – useless?

Slide from Lydia Jessup’s talk illustrating 8 computer mouse “what-if’s”.

Luming Hao, despite a lingering flu, talked through his efforts to develop a theory of “calibration labor,” the continuously obfuscated work of tuning, zero-ing, configuring, installing, and normalizing (TL:DR, “less work = hidden work”). Luming’s slides are online, full of further reading and memes, which I can’t recommend enough.

Ashley concluded the talks with a reading of speculative fiction, written based on 63 interviews with black women that she has conducted over the past two years (the exact note I wrote in my phone at this point, clearly psyched and maybe a little tripped out on Dayquil, was, “Ashley is reading us stories!!!”). She described the computer mouse as a secret link to a history of black women in computing that she has been working to archive - an “invisible career family tree,” as she put it. She welcomed us to close our eyes while guiding us through small vignettes, ripe with the intimacy of personal encounters, but remixed into moments unplaceable in any single temporality. As the narrator of one story put, “The past, present, and future can happen all at once.”

The night culminated in a panel featuring artist/designer Ayo Okunseinde, artist/engineer Tega Brain, and researcher/writer Laine Nooney, moderated by Ashley. The panel was fangirl-able in a number of ways, beyond the panelists themselves: half the stage was jumpsuit-clad and effortlessly sipping Stella Artois, Laine and Tega had just co-taught a seemingly epic class at NYU called The History of Computing: How the Computer Became Personal, and it was revealed early that Ayo is a time traveler. (There was also a notable demographic absence that certainly didn’t hurt its standing as one of the more respectful, substantive, and comfortable group of panelists I’ve seen.)

From left to right: Tega Brain, Laine Nooney, Ayo Okunseinde, Ashley Jane Lewis. Image shared by skyler (@hello_skyler) on Twitter.

Ashley opened the panel by inviting the room to reminisce: “What is your first memory of the computer mouse?” Ayo, who used to build choose-your-own-adventure games for his little brother, cited how the shift from typing to using a mouse eased his brother’s play. Tega was reminded of its maintenance and materiality, the act of picking hair out of of the trackball of an early computer mouse that grounded her outside the bubble of a digital world. Laine had more vivid memories of novelty mouse pads. The audience laughed; we had those memories, too.

For the next hour, Ashley and the panelists talked speculative design, ergonomics, and language embodiment; shared memories and works-in-progress; and troubled assumptions of what technology, and its history, has to be. Towards the end of the panel discussion, Ashley asked point-blank: “What comes to mind when thinking of a history of the computer mouse?” Ayo, whose work hinges on reclaiming space for unrepresented communities, responded with another question: “What happens when you cut that line and attach it to something else?” It had been an evening of reaching to forgotten histories, bringing to light how people of color, queer folks, and women folded into white-washed, patriarchal stories of computing, and Ayo prompted us to consider how this felt. It was what Ashley and Emma had invited us to wonder all along, and there we were, sharing stories of cut lines and collapsed time.

At the day’s end, its theme revealed itself to be less an object than a gesture. A refrain arose from Emma’s writing on the computer mouse: “[The mouse] is not deterministic in its shape. Rather, it is a shape that responds to your body. You do not hold it, but it holds you.” It became clear that we’d gathered not just by way of an object, but a shared holding – of the very object that made the conference possible as a conduit for information, and of each other, as collaborators, world-builders, and friends. 

The first computer mouse by Douglas Engelbart, 1964.

Shea Fitzpatrick is an artist who works as a user interface designer. Shea lives, makes, and learns with others in Brooklyn.