As an old computer returns to its original owner, we wonder: Are old-car fans so different from vintage appliance fetishists? Photo by Rama.
Are you a tech fetishist? I am not. Computers have, traditionally, been tools for me. And much like my cameras–more than a few of which I’ve worn out over time–they don’t linger in my heart. However, cars linger. I remember the smells and feelings of each of the cars and vans (and one slightly sour old pickup) I’ve owned, even ones I didn’t hold onto for long. But computers? For my money, they’re replaceable and interchangeable. Better, faster, cheaper, sure. All good. (A series of crappy Windows-based laptops at the start of the 2000s returned me to Apple a decade ago, though, and I’ve not looked back. I know what works for me, and I stick within my comfort zone.) I want to switch it on, and I want it to work as it’s designed to. Can I print? Will it connect me to the internet? Will it remember my passwords? Good. The end.
And so I was struck recently by the reintroduction of an hoary old Apple IIe into my life. Originally beige but now yellowing badly, with a green-tinged monitor not a lot larger than my current smartphone, the IIe was originally gifted to me for Christmas 1985. As a way to encourage my writing at home–one of the few things I’d ever shown an interest in or aptitude for–my parents chose a system identical to the one I used at Howell High. It was a stiff hit to the retirement account, but they saw it as an investment in my future.
I did my darnedest to justify every penny of that investment. For decades I kept it, knowing that my first 10 years’ worth of writing for an audience (newspaper stories, fictional works, some of the most godawful poetry you’ve been lucky enough never to have to read), in high school, college, and a bit later, was on there. (I probably have some of the college papers that I was paid to write for well-heeled engineering students who had trouble stringing together one sentence in a row. And I can’t add 2 and 2 without coming up with 22, so I guess we’re even.) Through my largely terrible high school and college experiences, I could lose myself in my writing and either channel or distance myself from my current circumstance, depending on how depressed I wanted to make myself.
I suppose I could have just printed everything out; moving 20 pounds of computer around was hardly the most efficient storage system. But it was always neatly boxed up, and hidden away in a dark corner where I need not have looked at it. it moved with me from New Jersey to college in Indiana and back again, summer after summer, then to my apartment in Cliffside Park, where it continued to work but would cease its functional life. (I upgraded around that time, about a decade after my IIe was new.) Then, boxed up, it went across the country when I first went to L.A., then back to the midwest in my debut as a married man. Then back to California again, and around the greater L.A. area a couple of times.
But not to Phoenix. I had had enough of moving, and boxes, and wanted to pare down. But discarding that old system after so many years seemed wrong somehow. Why hold onto all that–large chunks of my written history–only to discard them? It didn’t cost me anything. Luckily, I had a solution. My pal Tony, now editor of a bicycle magazine in L.A. and who has forgotten more about photography than I will ever understand, has long been a conoisseur of vintage electronics of all sorts. He has a nostalgia for emerging tech like most of us reading this have a nostalgia for old cars. Who better, I thought, to keep it safe? His enjoyment of that particular strain of yestertech would outlast my childish need to hold on. So, once I moved out of L.A., more than eight years ago now, the whole system ended up in the back of his S-10 Blazer for the ride home: monitor, disk drives, the computer itself, and a fat stack of 5.25-inch floppy disks full of games and who knows what else. (Not sure about the old dot-matrix printer; I think I kept it and then bled it off at a later date.) The only caveat: If he ever needed to shift it, I wanted first crack at getting it back.
Over the years, he’d hook it up and play Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy with his daughter, and some cellphone footage would end up on his Facebook feed. I was thrilled to know not just that it still existed, but that it worked and was being enjoyed. But a change in living arrangements, and a reduction in square footage therein, meant that he had to return the IIe to me not long ago. The vigor with which I accepted his return took me back slightly.
For now it remains in a bin in the back of my van, pending a spot to plug it in and get it running again in my house. Once I get it connected, I’m certain that the monitor will cause eyestrain, and the time it takes to get anything done (access old files, play a game) will seem like hours compared to the instant-access world we now enjoy. My child will mock me for keeping a pet dinosaur in the house.
I expect it to be much like driving an old car, in fact: The tech has long been superceded, but it will remain charming, allowing the fog of memory to spackle over some of the tedium. If nothing else, it helps you appreciate what you have to aid you in living your daily life.
Old cars are the same as old appliances or tools; they are a durable consumer good, made to be the best they could be in their day (within the realm of planned obsolescence, anyway). Our old cars, in truth, are no better than freezers or TV sets. Indeed, tech has updated the automobile greatly since whatever time period you care to recognize. Engines remain internal-combustion, but the gains in efficiency and power in the last … 10? 25? 50? years remain extraordinary. Used to be an automatic transmission had two or three forward gears; I just bought a minivan that has nine. Brakes still stop the car, but those brakes are increasingly disc over drum, and with anti-skid capability to boot. Tires? Light-years ahead of where we once were, in terms of grip, ride and durability.
But cars mean something to us, of course.
And there are surely those who feel for computers, cameras, cellphones, even refrigerators and convection ovens, as you or I feel for a car. Some would wax rhapsodic over the click of a shutter, or the grind of a disk drive, or the feel of a dial as it turns. I am not one of those people, but I do not begrudge them their fetish. Substitute “my GTO” or “my Mercedes” for any of the computer references above, and suddenly the story is the same for many of us.
Now, with my high school computer back in my hands, those differences seem slimmer than ever.