I’m often puzzled by how satisfying older technology is. What a treat it is to muscle around an ancient teletype, feeding it new-old paper-tape or rolls of industrial paper with the weight of a bygone era. What pleasure I take from the length of piano roll I’ve hung like a banner from a high place in every office I’ve had since 2000.
How much satisfaction I derive from the racing works of the 1965 mechanical watch I received as a Father’s Day present this year, audible in rare moments of ambient silence or when my hand strays near my ear, going tick-tick-tick-tick like the pattering heart of a pet mouse held loosely in my hand.
The standard explanation for the attractiveness of this old stuff is simply that They Made It Better In The Old Days. But this isn’t necessarily or even usually true. Some of my favorite old technologies are as poorly made as today’s throwaway products from China’s Pearl River Delta sweatshops.
Take that piano roll, for example: a flimsy entertainment, hardly made to be appreciated as an artifact in itself. And those rattling machine-gun teletypes and caterpillar-feed printers — they have all the elegance of a plastic cap gun that falls apart after the first roll of caps has run through it.
Today, I have a different answer. Sitting beside me as I type this is a 512GB Kingston solid-state drive, its case lights strobing like the world’s tiniest rave. Every time I look at this thing, I giggle. I’ve been giggling all afternoon.
I got my first personal computer in 1979, an Apple II+, and it came with 48K of main memory. I remember the day we upgraded the RAM to 64K, my father slotting in the huge board reverently, knowing that it represented $495 worth of our family’s tight technology budget (about $1,500 in today’s money). What I really remember is the screaming performance boost we got from that board.
The first time RAM made me laugh was in the mid-1990s. My mentor and friend, Miqe, and I were doing prepress jobs on brand-new Macintosh Quadras. It would often take a Quadra three or four days to complete a job. Of course, every machine already had as much RAM as it could handle (136MB).
Miqe and I got to talking about the performance improvements we’d be able to get with an unthinkable 500MB of RAM. Then we thought about 1GB of RAM and all we could do with it. Finally, we strained our imaginations to their outer limits and tried to imagine computing at 1TB of RAM.
And we started to laugh. This substance that cost more than its weight in gold — that solved all our problems — sometime in our lifetimes would be so cheap and abundant that we would have literally unimaginable amounts of it.
And that’s why I’ve been giggling at this half-terabyte RAM (OK, RAM-like) drive that I just spent $1,500 on — the same sum Dad parted with for a 64K upgrade card 30 years ago.
Which brings me back to these beautiful old objects I have around my office. I don’t have these here because they’re inherently well-made. I have them because they’re the best joke we have.
They’re the continuous, ever-delightful reminder that we inhabit a future that rushes past us so loudly we can barely hear the ticking of our watches as they are subsumed into our phones, which are subsumed into our PCs, which are presently doing their damnedest to burrow under our skin.
The poets of yore kept human skulls on their desks as memento mori — reminders of mortality and humanity’s fragility. I keep these old fossil machines around for the opposite reason: to remind me, again and again, of the vertiginous hilarity of our age of wonders.
Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is Makers (Tor Books U.S., HarperVoyager U.K.). He lives in London and co-edits the website Boing Boing.
This column is excerpted from MAKE Volume 24, page 16.
Check out MAKE Volume 24:
MAKE blasts into orbit and beyond with our DIY Space issue. Put your own satellite in orbit, launch a stratosphere balloon probe, and analyze galaxies for $20 with an easy spectrograph! We talk to the rocket mavericks reinventing the space industry, and renegade NASA hackers making smartphone robots and Lego satellites. This, plus a full payload of other cool DIY projects, from a helium-balloon camera that’s better than Google Earth, to an electromagnetic levitator that shoots aluminum rings, and much more.