The Joys of Old Tech

Written By: Jake Bauer | Posted: 2020-05-07 | Last Updated: 2020-05-07

A 3.5 inch
    floppy disk, lying against a rock on a table. Text on the disk reads:
    Grand&Toy IBM Formatted 2HD.

There’s something magical about using old technology. Be it an old, grinding hard disk, a floppy disk with a maximum capacity of 1.44MB, or a CRT monitor with a maximum resolution of 1024x768. Unrivalled in their simplicity, unchallenged in their whirs and clunks, there is an unmistakable allure of the tech of days gone by. Just listen to these sounds of an IBM PC AT, hard at work.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Much of the tech from past decades was actually confusing and difficult to use at times. Remember having to manually set IRQs? What about needing to manually configure X, and having your CRT emit some of its magic smoke in the process? Or, how about needing to terminate your SCSI bus, lest you have weird errors?

Nevertheless, the satisfying clunk of the power switch on the back of your computer, the whine of your monitor turning on, and the sound of your floppy drive initializing as you sit down, ready to get stuck in for the night programming whatever latest hack you were working on, come together to create an inexplicable feeling sorely missed in the age of instant boot-up times and quiet, solid state storage. Perhaps it’s just childhood nostalgia.

Technology, in recent years, has become faster, easier to use, prettier, and more affordable. These advancements, however, came at the cost of simplicity, understanding the machine and protocols which one uses, and a deeper connection and feeling of control over one’s system. Given the way that technology has evolved in the past 30 years, it’s definitely easy to see why some would long for “the good old days”.

I think the majority of people who work with computers can agree that, on the whole, the advancements have been good for society. People have quicker and easier access to information, it’s easier to expose the wrong and celebrate the right in society, and it has enabled whole new disciplines of science. The problem is that this has come at the cost of the internet being controlled by mega-corporations, protocols and specifications becoming bloated and hard to understand, and many people becoming locked into ecosystems controlled by whoever sold them their hardware or software; not to mention the myriad ways technology is being used to oppress.

The specifications defining everything one would need to know and understand for developing a web browser is 114 million words and the specifications for modern technologies such as UEFI are orders of magnitude larger and more complex than those for a simple BIOS, designed for basic hardware control and booting. Making new software for these systems is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, and it usually requires either months, if not years, of work, a dedicated team of engineers and millions of dollars.

Gone are the days when one could open up the 300 page manual which came in the box with their microcomputer, turn to the page about making shapes appear on a screen with BASIC, and program a productivity application in a single weekend. Gone also, are the days of being able to fit a homework assignment on a floppy disk, let alone an entire operating system.

Despite all this doom and gloom, there is a small subset of programmers and scientists creating software like the Plan9 operating system or SourceHut designed to bring simplicity and understandability back to the way we use our computers. Many people still use such programs as the Lynx web browser and such protocols as IRC and Gopher simply because of how comfortable, calming, and simple they are compared to the alternatives. In fact, Gopher has actually seen a increase in usage over the past few years.

There is so much value in the simple, the plain, and the understandable that has been lost in the rush to make systems more capable, larger, faster, and smarter. Despite its own set of drawbacks, old technology is such a joy to use because it has been kept unspoiled by the complexities of modern computing. One can only hope that the industry as a whole will realize the harm that complicated systems inevitably bring and return to making software and hardware which is capable still, yet simple and understandable.

This is my twelfth post for the #100DaysToOffload challenge. You can learn more about this challenge over at https://100daystooffload.com.