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Memento Mori

Memento Mori

Cory Doctorow Make Free Volume 25
Cory Doctorow Make Free

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).

Cory Doctorow MAKE Volume 24

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.


26 thoughts on “Memento Mori

  1. Lorinc Del Motte says:

    A story my dad likes to racont every now and then was how he held in his hand a 32KB chip and marvelling at how they managed to achieve such a feat. Modern images are bigger than that.

  2. Gregg says:

    I know what you mean. My first computer was indeed an Apple 2+, and we did indeed everything that you describe. Then we moved to an Apple 2E, and finally discovered the PC.

    However my father did indeed participate in exactly what you’ve described, just not with Atilla the Mac. He did it with Skinny, that was the the Mac Plus nickname.

  3. Ross Hershberger says:

    Some old tech can still compete. After 15 days my mechanical wristwatch has gained 5 seconds. The Swatch in my desk drawer lost 8 seconds. And when the Swatch’s battery dies the mechanical wins hands down. Advantage, ETA 2892.
    I kinda wish I hadn’t given away my ’70s computers. The KIM-1 is about the right size to frame and display on the wall.

    1. Bob Darlington says:

      No mechanical watch can compete with a crackerjack box quartz oscillator driven watch (digital or other).

      1. Ross Hershberger says:

        Blanket statements: nearly always wrong.
        Mechanical timekeeping is more accurate than you think. John Harrison built a clock primarily out of wood that kept time to one second a month. Over 250 years ago.
        I have dozens of watches and know all of their rates to a high level of certainty. This mechanical keeps time to less than 1ppm in daily wear, which beats at least 1/3 of my quartz watches. And when the quartz watch’s battery fails, then how accurate is it?

  4. Natanael L says:

    I remember when 32″ Plasma TV cost 100 000 SEK and up. Today there’s technically better LCD’s at 42″ that cost below 10 000 SEK. And I’m just 20! This has all happened in just a few years, this wasn’t even a decade ago!

    Technology improves FAST!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Found myself wondering the same thing from time to time, when i hear my dad going on about having to go to the neighbors to make a phone call (or hearing shouts when there was a call to them), and that is barely a generation ago. Now each member of the family carries one or more phones, and we scrapped 3-4 computers that was sitting in the basement unused (and mostly stripped for parts). Makes one wonder where the future will be (tho i hope it will involve component based phones, much like a desktop computer today).

  6. mathew says:

    The other day I looked in a camera bag and found a couple of 32MB flash cards.

    I had to stare at them for a while to get my brain to process the fact that they were 32 megabytes, not gigabytes; a thousand times smaller in capacity than they looked.

    I also remember the 1Kib video RAM upgrade for the TRS-80 costing $100. 1 kibibit, 1 bit wide, the equivalent of 128 bytes of RAM, so you could have lower case letters! The fact that the TRS-80 came with 7 bit video RAM to start with just adds to the hilarity.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Me: So how much ram do we have in our computer?
    Dad: I got the extra card, so we have 48K. I could have gotten 64K, but nobody needs that much memory. If you need that much memory, you’re not programming right.

    Ah, those were the days!

  8. Arnon says:

    Y’know what, I do believe that’s the first explanation I’ve ever heard that made utter sense to me.

    It’s like when my friend got his first 100MB drive, and joking about 1gb drives. We were laughing at the idea of trying to fill something like that short of giving every blade of grass on the planet their own unique name.

  9. Anonymous says:

    It’s easy to laugh at dead tech, and the whizz-bang features which are now crushing limitations. But it’s more insightful to learn from the really groundbreaking aspects which may be less obvious.

    Piano rolls may seem quaint, but over a century ago the pianomakers and the rollmakers got together and came up with a revolutionary idea — an open standard data format. Conversely, the phonograph and phonograph recording industries vexed consumers for decades with their patents and format wars. So, whereas if you wanted to listen to an Edison record you needed an Edison player, and so forth, one could take an “88-note” piano roll produced anywhere in the world and enjoy it on any player piano.

    Consider also the effects on copyright law: compulsory recording licenses? the copyright status of machine-readable (but not human-readable) information? Yep, the humble piano roll casts a long (if somewhat holey) shadow.

    As for the “flimsiness” — marvel instead at how something that’s over a century old can still be played back without any bitrot, even on cumbersome mechanical-pneumatic technology. Your SSD won’t have any readable data long before 2111, even assuming that RoHS-induced tin whiskering hasn’t turned the whole thing into a useless lump.

  10. Tracy Poff says:

    I am regularly stunned by the degree and reliability of progress we see in computers. I remember that a little more than a decade ago I got a new 3GB hard drive, costing hundreds of dollars. That much space seemed very impressive, then. A few years later and it was possible to get a 250GB hard drive for scarcely more than a hundred dollars. Most recently, I bought a 2TB drive for around a hundred dollars. Soon, I expect, I’ll be able to get twice as much space for that price. Similarly the 8GB of ram I have now seems ludicrously huge. My processor now is hundreds of times faster than I had back then.

    I couldn’t have imagined, fifteen years ago, what I would do with such resources. But now, so many things are possible. I have multiple virtual machines running a variety of operating systems available at any moment, some of which run more-or-less continuously. The hundreds of CDs, tapes, and records that I have are now available instantly and simultaneously.

    What might the future hold? Some things I can predict: as I can now have essentially every song I might wish to hear available constantly, in the future I should be able to have every movie and every TV show I might want to see similarly at my fingertips. The future will be like the present, but moreso.

    But that’s naive. I’m sure that there will be advances that I can’t think of, now. Things I wouldn’t consider that will be commonplace. It’s a dazzling view of the future that I can’t wait to see become the present.

  11. Norman Dimock says:

    Telegraph poles
    derelict each in their own way
    watch the Forest creep around
    waiting to reclaim them
    Mountains watch them rot
    Trains skitter past
    The River pays no mind
    Dragging their wires on the Ground
    Many hang their arms
    Many miss glass eyes
    Some have fallen
    None talk
    No more dots and dashes

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Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist.

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