I am a firm believer in “crap technology” as Thomas Hayden defines it in his post Ixnay on the iPod: In Praise of Crap Technology. It’s not some ideological thing, and in fact I never had a name for it until hearing a segment with him on Marketplace, “Crap technology, not crappy, where he says:
Crap technology is basically stuff that doesn’t have cachet, you know? It’s not slick, it’s not cool, but it works. Crappy technology, on the other hand, is stuff that simply doesn’t work. That’s the sweet spot of crap technology: no cachet but all the functionality you’ll need.
Part of this certainly comes from somewhat limited financial resources for much of my life that caused me to get creative. As a kid in the 80s I was overwhelmed with excitement when my parents let me have the black and white TV that had previously been in their bedroom for the rooms I shared with my sister. I never had cable in my bedroom, but OTA TV wasn’t so bad. When an aunt and uncle sprung for an NES for us I spent weeks one summer scouring flea markets and garage sales with my mother for a cheap color television so I could use it in our bedroom while other family members watched TV on the livingroom TV. I found one for $75, the color was a mess and it sometimes required a smack on the side to get adjusted but I could hook up my NES!
In 1991 when I was 10 our home got our first personal computer, a IBM PC with an 8086 processor and two 5.25″ floppy drives (actually, it looked like this). I’ll probably never know exactly what it was, but the story is that my uncle pulled it out of his basement to give it to us, so in 1991 it was already a basement dinosaur. In 1994, when I was 13, my grandparents gave our family our first computer with a GUI, a 486 with Windows 3.11. From there, our story of family computers morphed into one of my father and I hunting through the computer shops of Maine for old software manuals and hauling that poor 486 to the computer shop each time we saved up enough money to upgrade something on it (harddrive, RAM). It was the most impressive 486 in history by the time we were done with it. I then spent summers saving up money to buy old computers from newspaper classified ads. In my world of 386 DOS systems, perhaps my greatest achievement was when I was 16 and bought an no name 586 for a couple hundred dollars, I could run Windows 98!
I wish I could say I learned a lot from all this young tinkering, but I wasn’t online until late 1998 and I didn’t have friends who were interested in computers. I rarely knew what I was doing or had goals, and most of my time was spent breaking things and playing with ridiculous old software. I think mostly what I learned was a love for technology and an appreciation for old technology that I kept around far past the point when most people had moved on from them. After all, it still works fine!
My mp3 player, digital camera, and pretty much every other piece of tech I own was inexpensive, non-trendy and pretty much lasts forever. I will admit that on the desktop computer side I have always had a pretty decent core desktop that I built with parts from a local computer store or Newegg. Every 4 years or so I’ll drop $400-600 and do a motherboard, RAM and processor upgrade, along with whatever else I need. My firewall is still a Pentium 4 though (and it makes me cringe to call it old, P4s are decent!).
When it comes to computers, laptops are where my real crap technology story is. In 2008 my laptop was a Dell Inspiron 7500. I’d say that where my fleet of old 386 systems were the computers of my teens, my fleet of 7000-series Inspiron laptops were those of my 20s (it topped out a 2 functioning, 3 total, seen here running Ubuntu 5.10 server + xfce4 packages). It didn’t plan the Inspiron fleet, they just kept falling into my lap for free (dumpster drive, old giveaway from work, a friend). However, in early 2008, the last of my beloved Inspirons got to the end of the line.
As old as the Inspiron was, I had gotten used to having a laptop. When I posted photos online a friend of mine offered to give me his old Compaq Armada E500. In exchange I bought him dinner, a burger and a beer, following a LUG meeting. At 800mhz and 384M of RAM it almost doubled the speed I had on my Inspiron and tripled my RAM. Best burger and beer investment ever! I also learned at that LUG meeting that there was another Inspiron 7000-series loyalist among us and I ended up giving him my final Inspiron for parts.
The Armada was my primary laptop for about 9 months, at the end of which several close friends pitched in (presumably taking pity upon me for having such an dinosaur of a laptop) and gave me my pink Dell mini9. I’m typing on the mini9 right now, this little machine better last forever because I love it so.
And the Compaq Armada? It became first a little development machine and I would also do some software testing on it. As those functions increasingly became virtualized I have kept it around and most recently used it for point to point openvpn and IPSec testing (it’s so much easier to plug a physical machine into my physical modem than to add the complexity of network virtualization to an already complex VPN setup).
However, if I’m perfectly honest, it’s not doing well and hasn’t been for a while. There are I/O errors now and then, I can’t plug in PCMCIA cards anymore without it causing a kernel panic, and Debian is the only operating system that I can install on it (it has run OpenBSD and Ubuntu in the past). In fact, I’m not even sure I could install Debian on it again if I wiped the harddrive. Every time I booted it up I anticipated a screen full of errors that would signal forced retirement.
So a couple weeks ago I installed Debian on my new Lenovo G575 (which, while new, was $299, and solidly in the “crap technology” camp). Yesterday evening after work I did a full backup of the entire disk on the old Armada and shut it down for the last time.
Mourning the final shutdown of my Armada has made me reflect even more about why, now that I have the means, I don’t just buy the latest shiny thing. Like most geeks I do love new toys and read up on the latest trends in tech. Amusingly I think part of it comes from my constant search for perfection, I have very specific requirements for the core devices in my life and once I have a device that finally fits those needs I don’t want to give it up. I also get quite emotionally attached to the things I carry around with me, so the thought of replacing something that still works fine in favor of some new features makes me a bit sad, I have to have a really, really good reason (that NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight? So tempting! Cannot justify, my original Nook is fine and I’ll still need a book light for magazines anyway).
So goodbye my old Armada! Simcoe says goodbye too:
…or she was cross about me taking a picture of a computer rather than her. The internet needs more cat pictures.