People (like myself) romanticize vintage computing because it felt magical and full of purpose and potential. There was a certain creakiness to the jank operating systems and questionable hardware. CD Rom drives would click, whir, buzz and vibrate in ways that made you fear for the health of your computer. The hard drives would chatter and tick as your data attempted to be read off the spinning magnetic platter. The case fans would whine and whir. Modems would scream out in pain as you dialed into the infant internet. The CRT monitor would BOING to life with a dangerous electrical crackle and the whole computer case would snap and crinkle as it all came up to temperature.
It felt simultaneously futuristic and archaic. You knew you were at the bleeding edge of obsolesce at all times. But you almost always knew more about those computers than your parents. It felt like forbidden special knowledge and it was, for many of us, our first true taste of knowledge and power. Our first real brush with competence. Computers were these beige machines built for serious business, and yet, we would harness these mutli-thousand dollar machines to play video games that operated on the fringes of technical possibility.
Every single year seemed to bring forth some generational leap in capabilities and fidelity. It was a living, breathing industry that was not yet fully commodified. It was vibrant and it was weird. Very, completely, weird.
Computers today are better. Operating systems just work, most machines barely make more than the faint whisper of a fan. Monitors are immediately lit up, perfect, thin and high resolution. The internet exists in the air. And since 2012, it feels like absolutely nothing has happened. Computers have gotten faster, sure, and graphics have gotten better – yeah. But incrementally so. Nothing is jank and strange. Everything feels like a fucking product.
But when I push in the quarter sized power button on 486 and hear the symphony of noise as this computer struggles to do anything I tell it do, I can’t help but be charmed and feel powerful. There’s something special there, that I don’t think I’ll ever experience again.
I need to stop thinking backwards. I need to think forward. I need to let go of these things. It’s just so hard. I used to be so full of promise and potential too.