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The Romance of Obsolete Technology 

Breaking up with my PowerBook is hard to do

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999
THE FIRST TIME I SAW STAR WARS, A MONTH INTO ITS release, I found myself struck not by the special effects, nor even the story, but by the fact that the technology in the film looked so, well, jury-rigged and worn. This was machinery I could relate to, pieces of equipment cobbled together out of junk-shop parts and obsolete systems, much like my stereo or electric guitar. I marveled at the beat-up look of the spaceships, reacted with recognition when they didn't work the way they were supposed to -- or didn't work at all. Prior to that moment, I'd always imagined that the electronic age (which was just then beginning to emerge from the fanciful mists of science fiction) would be pristine, an era when the frailties of every appliance or gadget I'd ever owned would miraculously evaporate once and for all. But sitting in my broken seat watching an already scratchy print of the movie, I realized that even the most modern materials would one day end up on the garbage heap, after we had wrung every last bit of use from them along the way.

All these years later, that memory seems emblematic, if not of society at large, then of my own complicated relationship with technology. For much of that time, I have been woefully behind the electronic curve, slow to buy my first computer, slow to replace it when my needs outstripped its limited functions, slow to go online or to experience the peculiar fascinations of the World Wide Web. It's become something of a signifier, a way for people to identify me. As far back as the late 1980s, when I was still working with a double-floppy Panasonic, my friend Steve took me out for coffee to explain that I'd feel better if I'd just take the plunge and buy a system with a hard drive. Steve was right, of course: My old computer was dreadfully slow, when it worked at all, and I often had to hand-copy bits of text off its tiny black-and-green monitor or run the risk of losing everything when the machine froze. Somehow, though, it was another two years before I took his advice. Even now, I work on a 4-and-a-half-year-old black-and-white PowerBook 520 -- whose 14400 modem and 16 megs of RAM make loading even the sparest Web site an adventure -- which I began to use "temporarily" in early 1998, after my previous obsolete computer, a 1991 Mac IIsi, finally succumbed to the digital equivalent of Alzheimer's disease. The bottom line is, I guess, that I really should get a new computer, but then, as my friends would say, such has been the case for nearly 15 years.

So what is the root of my technological reluctance, my inability to purchase a machine I know I need? Sometimes, I think it's a matter of electronic Calvinism, the austere notion that this is good enough. There's an honor in simplicity, or so I was raised to believe, and, in truth, I don't require much -- just the capacity to process words and send e-mail, both of which are well within the range of my PowerBook, antiquated though it may be. Yet more to the point, I'm intimidated by the risk of making a commitment, or perhaps I should say a mistake. For the last six months, I've known almost exactly the system I would buy, were I actually going to buy a system: a Power Macintosh of some sort, probably a G3. Even so, I can't get ã myself to pull the trigger, to lay down my money and bring the hardware home. It's a big deal, after all, acquiring a computer, a decision fraught with second-guessing, and the inevitable morning-after certainty that you've chosen wrong. If the nature of technology is obsolescence, why not just stick with an out-of-date piece of equipment, since that's what even the most state-of-the-art system is destined to become?

What's ironic about this is that I am not particularly anti-technological -- not computer-phobic, nor overly concerned that too much time spent among the soulless circuits of the Internet will strip us of our identities. I am not, in other words, a Luddite, at least not in any traditional sense. Sure, I'm wary of our reliance on machinery, put off by the hype and glory with which the cyber faithful like to sell themselves. Still, technology has always fascinated me, and never more than now, when, because of the World Wide Web, we live in double-click proximity to what I think of as the electronic collective unconscious, a network made up of the fiber of our obsessions, the substance of our dreams. It's this that is most compelling about the Internet, the way anyone with the right combination of shamelessness and know-how can expose himself (and, by extension, the rest of us) in the voyeur's paradise of the virtual world. At the same time, the Web has a certain fleeting quality, an edge of ephemera, making innovations like DVD and Broadband, with their speed and clarity, feel uncomfortably concrete. In a landscape of dreams, it seems antithetical to hold on too tightly, which may be another reason I like the technological cutting edge to remain the slightest bit out of reach.

Of course, there's something else about the landscape of dreams, which is that, even at its most electronic, it comes hardwired with a recognizable human touch. This, too, is what I find comforting about obsolete technology: its quirks and scars and failings, so unlike the sterile perfection of the new. When my PowerBook acts up (much like my earlier computers), I talk to it, baby it, coax it into doing what it should. I turn it off and on; I do diagnostic tests; I worry about whether it will work again. On the one hand, that can be frustrating, enervating, but on the other, it's familiar, a way of handling problems that I recognize from dealing with the people in my life. Perverse as it sounds, it may be this that I want most of all from a computer -- a machine that, every time I use it, provides a context for demystifying itself.

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