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The Old Computer Challenge and Why I Need It


This will be a weird post. I don't know if anyone else has thought this way, and I could be completely alone in here, but here goes.

Over the last year or so, I have become more and more aware of a growing impatience in myself. I have difficulty focusing on things that take a long time, and the amount of time I can remain attentive to just one thing has dropped considerably. I find it difficult to stand in line, to wait for things to arrive in the mail, to watch movies, or do anything that does not offer either the possibility of immediate results or the opportunity for distraction.

I think one of the reasons for this is that there is always something available that my brain believes is more interesting than what I am doing now, and the cost for this mental context switching is zero. With a modern device and good wifi, I can flick between thoughts instantly. I notice this most acutely when trying to read and actually finish books. When reading, I often race between ideas, and will only get through a page or two at a time before feeling an urge to look something up in response to them. This is a new problem for me. I never had this much difficulty just finishing a book when I was younger.

That wouldn't be so bad if the story stopped there, but the situation is much worse than that. I have also seen an increased self-centeredness and a desire to be praised, admired, or even just noticed. I cannot point to a time when this started, but I do remember a stark moment when I realized that nearly all of my interaction on various tech-based forums and similar social media sites had my own ego as the driving factor.

It's interesting how subtly this vice can happen. Instead of being helpful, I wanted to be thought of as helpful. Instead of sharing knowledge, I wanted to be admired as knowledgeable. Instead of being praiseworthy, I wanted praise. It may be tempting to say that none of these things are bad. But improper elevation of a lesser good over a higher good can lead to something that is not good at all. In my case, I became (and still am) unhealthily sensitive to negative criticism, too dependent on positive affirmation from others, and refreshed far too many pages watching upvotes/likes/etc than was good for me.

I do think that modern technology is related to both of these flaws in me, though the relationship is not quite clear. I don't remember them being this bad until the internet was both pervasive and easy. Yes, it's fashionable in our society to blame technology for our character defects, and I realize this is how this post may sound. But I think it would be more accurate to blame our character defects for the technology we build.

It's impatience that makes me want a faster laptop. It's a desire for self-promotion and egocentrism that enables much of social media to exist, for whatever good may accidentally come of it. We use terms like "followers" to refer to online communities sort of gathered around our online persona, which previously would have been a term used almost exclusively in reference to a religious community gathered around a leader or set of beliefs.

These two concerns have made me often think about what would happen if I just used an old computer. What if the time cost of each interaction with a device was higher? Would I use it less often and more deliberately? There is only one way to find out, which is why I have decided to take part in an Old Computer Challenge proposed by Solene Rapenne.

The rules are simple: outside of work, use something with 1 core and 512 MB of RAM or less, from 10-July to 17-July. I will be using a DEC AlphaStation and nothing else for the duration of this week, and will do a follow up with my thoughts at the end of that time. If you're interested, why not give it a try too?