A Forgotten Virtue

Seen this paean to obsolescence? I hadn’t until Jackie brought it to my attention, and now I’m passing the favor on to you.

It is fairly lengthy–though that shouldn’t bother anyone who reads my ramblings here–but if you don’t have the patience right now, the tl;dr is that the author, one Ian Bogost, believes that computing technology reached its peak in the early 1990s.

He argues that all of the advances since then–the ability to run quietly, multitask, go online without dialup, use a display big enough to see clearly, and so on–are actually regressions.

I detect a certain amount of Mr. Bogost’s tongue in his cheek, yet the final impression is that he’s quite serious in his praise of archaeo-computing*.

* Yes, I know that the term “retrocomputing” is in common parlance. Mr. Bogost, however, takes the concept to a whole ‘nother level.

Look, I’m not immune to the lure of the small, underpowered computer. You know my love for my Windows tablet. I’ve got a couple of netbooks*. They still work, and I still use them occasionally.

* I’m convinced that what doomed the netbook was not its lack of power, but its lack of screen resolution. 1366×768 just isn’t big enough to get any serious work done in a GUI environment. Give me a ten-inch screen large enough to display something close to a full page of text at a readable size, and I’m in. Why do you think that the iPad is so popular? It’s basically a netbook that swaps the keyboard for a high-resolution screen.

But there are things that just can’t be done with a small computer. Writing, sure. Editing? Probably. Software development? Only if you’re building something to run on that same device. Art? Video editing? Forget it, unless you’re okay with an input lag measured in seconds and rendering times measured in weeks. Games? Anything more taxing than a crossword puzzle or hand of solitaire is going to run slower than real time.

Mr. Bogost, it appears, considers the greater part of the last two decades to have been wasted effort. There is, he says, virtue in a computer that makes you wait and that pummels you with noise while you twiddle your thumbs.

The lack of capability and speed and the noise generated combined to force computer owners to limit their screen time (to use an expression that dates to 1921).

Apparently he missed–or has forgotten–the online communities of the time. There might not have been a Facebook sucking up hours of users’ time. But there was GEnie. Prodigy. AOL. Usenet, for crying out loud.

Text adventures. I can’t count how many hours I spent on the computer game of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Heck, anyone else remember “Leisure Suit Larry”? I wonder if Mr. Bogost remembers “Zork”.

It’s the final paragraph of Mr. Bogost’s piece that really sets my teeth to grinding. He concludes by turning off his ancient computer and declares that act to be literally impossible today.

I’ve got news for him. Every flipping piece of technology he references–his laptop, his tablet, and his smartphone–has a power switch. He can do exactly the same thing as with his Macintosh SE.

Why doesn’t he? Because he doesn’t want to wait for them to turn back on. Waiting, it seems, is only a virtue when you have no choice.