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An Aside on Consumerism, Identity, and Values

9 min read


Ken Thompson (sitting) and Dennis Ritchie at PDP-11 (2876612463)
via Wikmedia Commons

I am typing this on a shiny new laptop, which would probably not be terribly noteworthy except that, strictly speaking I didn't really need a new laptop.  I wanted one, for some fuzzy, hard to pinpoint reason, but the desire for something new but unnecessary, and actually following through with buying it, seems to conflict with my anti-consumerism values. The perfect internal conflict to reflect upon.

The theme that I keep coming back to when trying to unpack the desire for this new tool is identity. For the work I do, both professional and personal, a computer is a critical tool.  My relationships with computers goes back to early childhood when I first became aware and interested in the variety of tools they could become playing on an old Apple IIe and a little program, or set of programs my dad had wrote for me stored on a single 5.25" floppy disk. In all it's green monochrome CRT glory, I was captivated by a demonstration of various sorting algorithms and a rendition of "twinkle twinkle little star" playing over the 8bit speaker.  I seem to remember there also being something that was more like a game, but oddly it's the sorting algorithms and twinkle twinkle that have stuck in my mind.  Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not really sure what the replay value was, but I definitely fired up that floppy many times.

I first started dabbling in programming on... I want to say a Zenith, but none of the pictures I am finding look like the one I remember, so I may be remembering wrong.  What I do remember, is that this particular model had no included persistent storage and so any program I wrote vanished from the universe when the computer was switched off.  I was oddly intrigued by writting menu-driven conversational agents. Basically extremely rudimentary chatbots consisting of layers of if/then/elses, fixed topic menus, and gotos.  

The computer at home was replaced periodically, always a generation or so behind the state-of-the-art that my data would buy when the university auctioned off old equipment.  When color -- first 4, then an eye dazzling 256 color monitors and the Intel 386 entered the mainstream I got my first does of them at a friend's along with the generation of video games the technology ushered in.

When we first got a dial-up internet connection to the university's network over a 2400 baud modem it opened up a whole new dimension.  Access to online communities and information that before had been out of reach. This was before the world-wide-web, mind you, or at least before WWW capable internet connections, basically a direct connection to the university's gopher server and menu-driven access to resources and bulletin boards.

My first view of a WWW page was at my dad's office, using the Mosaic browser to view pictures of the red planet sent back by the Mars Pathfinder.  Something about the promise of the WWW and carving out a spot on the public web stuck with me and I started getting into web development.  As a form of expression and creativity, there was something about the multimedia capabilities, and relative ease of publishing that appealed to me. I don't ever recalling having something in particular I wanted to say, it was more the idea that I could say something, if I wanted to.  It was truly a case of the medium is  the message, for me.

There was even a stint in the late 90s when a high school friend and I started a webdesign business.  We had exactly 2 clients -- both personal/family connections because who else would pay money to kids in high school to design a website -- for which we essentially wrote a CMS in perl.

Fast forward a good chunk of time to a few years into grad school when I began teaching an Introduction to Unix course.  I had been a casual user of the Linux operating system off and on for a while, and a more consistent user when I began grad school.  None of that really gave me the qualifications to teach a course, but it was one of those low-priority "just follow the provided material, you'll be fine" situations.  Of course, I'm never one to "just follow the provided material" and I began learning more about this history of Unix and notable figures like Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, and Richard Stallman. I came across (or maybe it had been referenced in the "provided materials" The Art of Unix Programming, by Eric Raymond and began assigning chapters for the course I was teaching.  It was this piece that really got me thinking about programming and web authorship as an art and thinking about the philosophy of software design.  I was drawn in to the connections between the evolution of software patterns and how they were influenced by the cultural history of commercial and open source computing. Code and more, specifically software architectures, was more than just an abstract sequence of instructions, it was a declaration of group identity, and cultural currency connecting the software and author to a larger community.  

Where am I going with this? That's a good question. As with many of my ramblings, I have somewhat spiraled away from what I had originally had in mind.  The Unix course stands out as a pivotal moment in my life, as the moment I first began to view teaching as a viable profession, and also the start of my passion for the socio-historical-cultural underpinnings of technology and how it influences what we do, how we think, and how we interact with one another. Tools are an extension of ourselves, and thus an extension of our identities. It was probably around this time that I bought my first System76 laptop. It was, and still is, one of the few companies that sell laptops with Linux pre-installed and a supporter of the open source community. Some years later, in 2017 I had high hopes when buying a laptop from Purism, a company built around a more dogmatic connection to open source and computing freedom. Sadly, I was underwhelmed by several aspects of this “pure” manifestation of the computing ideal: the build quality being the main one. Granted, I think they were only on their “version 2” of the hardware at the time, but I realized that ideological purity did not outweigh a relatively smooth user experience for me. There were issues with the purism locking up randomly to a point that I didn’t trust it enough to use for my PhD defense, instead going back to the old System76 which had to be plugged in as its battery no longer held a charge, but none the less was the more reliable option.

Both of these laptops were more or less retired once I started working and had a work-provided laptop. That, and the pandemic contributed to a workflow that didn’t really require mobile computing outside of work. My tendency to be a homebody contributed to mostly staying in and making use of a desktop gaming machine (that purchase is another story…) even after pandemic related restrictions were lifted. Lately, however, I have been more proactive about getting out of the house on the weekends. I have been living downtown for years but for a long time didn’t feel like I was really taking advantage of the convenience of various coffee shops and other locals that can serve as public spaces to engage in creative endeavors. Last weekend, I dusted of the old purism laptop and visited a few of my favorite places. I got a little hobby/LMS work done, wrote a blog post, did a little online and offline reading. It got the job done but… it just didn’t feel as good as it could have. For one thing, the 13” screen is on the small side to do web development work (I tend to split the screen code on one side, site preview on the other), not to mention the persistent display artifacts that have been plaguing it since nearly the beginning. That and it just felt rickety. It make creaking protests every time I opened and closed the lid. I just wanted something new.

I think the purchase was symbolic in a way too, marking a new beginning. It felt similar to when I bought a new commuter bike and retired the Schwinn I had originally purchased to get to my first job as a lifeguard the summer after high school. For my first “real” job after graduation it felt fitting to have a new mode of transportation to get there (which of course is now just relegated to trips to the food coop since I moved closer and a walking commute is convenient). It was a fresh beginning, a time to reinvent myself and get connected with my local community.

So did I need a new laptop? No. Have I necessarily justified the purchase with this story? Probably not. But System76 will recycle my old laptops, so I feel slightly better about it than if they were headed toward a landfill. Plus, one of the employees at System76 was a student in my Intro to Unix class way back when, so I think that makes it mostly ok to be a bit wasteful and buy a new thing.