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On Obsolete Hardware

I have a particular fascination with “obsolete” hardware.

I'm writing this right now on a Dell Latitude W830 workstation, made for professional use cases c. 2007. The darned thing feels like it's a full inch thick, literally the maximum possible size of computer that would fit in my backpack. Like all loved objects, it has a name, though the name changes based on the operating system running on it at the time. For a while it was HaikuStation, but today it is CrunchStation, since we're using CrunchBang++ as our operating system today. The keyboard is phenomenal, and before I dug it out of my father's closet, it had been laid to rest and ignored for maybe five to seven years.

I've done a few minor upgrades, but the largest one by far was giving Windows the boot. It originally ran Windows XP, and it would run Windows 7 ok, but not with anything like the responsiveness that Debian+ can provide. I swapped the HDD for a SATA SSD early on, swapped the CPU (Because, Hallelujah, this laptop has a socketed CPU!) with one of the nicer compatible ones available, and upgraded the wireless card to something a bit more modern and stable. Hinges needed replacing, that's about the only physical piece of hardware that needed addressing. I would have upgraded the RAM from 4 GB to 8 GB, but it turns out that DDR2 4GB sticks of ram were so rare that they're still $60-100 for a kit of two. That's more than I spent on the whole rest of the computer, though I might still end up doing that upgrade in the future. It's basically the last one to do on this machine.

I think I want to challenge the idea of obsolete computer hardware. This is a common observation in the sustainable computing space, its not the hardware that becomes obsolete, it's the software. What, truly, was stopping me from opening a markdown editor in Windows XP, composing this blog post, and posting it to my page from inside Internet Explorer? Mostly the fact that the internet is a dangerous place for such a necromantic software stack! People don't make security updates for ancient operating systems, and we need that kind of stuff to keep our stuff safe. Nobody is writing a Nextcloud client for XP, XP doesn't support any kind of modern storage formatting standard, I have no idea if Office 365 will open old Office 2007 files in a readable state, the practical problem with this computer that led to it being mothballed for more than half a decade is one of proprietary software support.

The other thing, the thing that is more difficult to combat with a fresh install image of Debian, is the aesthetic preference for a thinner, lighter, “snappier” machine. I won't deny the draw of this kind of thing myself, there's something semi magical about the fact that my normal daily driver, a Dell XPS 13, is smaller, faster, can do more, and (in particular) will blow away CrunchStation in a compilation benchmark. I don't notice it in my backpack. The screen is brighter and sharper. It's a better computer, objectively.

But let's put computing in it's right context. Is my life better because the computer I use is better? Do I need those two minutes of my life back that it saves me when building an app from source? Do I need the small size to make the trip from the parking lot to the coffee shop seat without needing to take a break in between? The one thing I could do with is a better battery, but that's also a convenience item. I'm never more than two strides from a three prong AC outlet in this modern world. I don't even need more RAM, even though there's a deeply built instinct for RAM insecurity in my brain, to gather and hoard RAM (and storage. Is a terabyte enough? No! Where will I keep my 90s Action Movie Collection?) far beyond what is practical. The system, without opening firefox, but with Obsidian open, is running at 1 gb of RAM usage. I'm fine.

If the trackpad was bigger, would I be happier? If the screen were sharper, would I be better able to help those who rely on me? WOULD THE KINGDOM OF GOD BE SERVED BY THINNER DISPLAY BEZELS?

Does computation serve humanity, or does computation expand at humanity's expense?

So I encourage you to cultivate a frugality and thrift with the computers in your life, the kind that would make your grandparents proud. Embrace, Extend, Enliven the “obsolete” in your life.

And for the sake of the world, don't buy another computer unless you can't help it. I'm not looking forward to the summer here when spring started back at the beginning of February.