The subject of this blog post started with a little pile next to my table. There’s a printer, a scanner and a generic box (of unsorted documents that graduates to sorted/processed documents) which sits right next to my desk. I have an 2006 Canon Pixma printer, which supposedly was designed to print photograph sized prints in photograph quality I used it a few times but I found that it ran out of ink very quickly. I argued this point with my dad that it is not economical to own such a printer that barely prints maybe 2 dozen prints for the cost of £30-40 colour prints, when you can get prints for 20p or so each these days. As such, for this reason, and due to the other reason that I have a smaller and more efficient portable printer (its so portable it fits in a shoe bag), my once fancy Pixma printer is now obsolete. Also thanks to great retailers like Boots and other such photo processing serviciers (sic).
This Pixma printer is a 1ft square or so heavy box of plastic that just fills up space. It feels like emotional clutter due to its unuse. I feel guilty that a fancy printer is essentially surplus to requirement. I then thought about the 2 xbox 360s that I have above a cupboard. I bought two because one of them was in disrepair and I felt a strong urge to get an xbox by christmas of some time maybe a year or two ago, in order to have a ‘halo marathon’ (a tradition among a few friends of mine). Now that the old Xbox 360 is obsoleted by the new Xbox One(tm); I have more tat that is just gathering dust. I also have Xbox accessories, games, pads and even a neat little wifi adaptor. If these things were universal for say, a PC or other device I surely could have found use for it.
Thinking about my old technology brought me to a deeper and deeper rabbit hole. I’ve got meters upon meters of USB cables all scrunched up in my desk. I have endless earphones that don’t work or half work, or are ugly that came free with something. I have AC adaptors for things I don’t even remember owning and some of these things are not even 10 years old yet I feel like I am one of those people on the hoarder TV shows.
All this technology finds itself obsolete very quickly and it makes me sad. Lately I’ve been thinking things like: I have been using my USB keyboard for 8 years now, I should get rid of it; perhaps I should get rid of my USB speakers – they have served their time.
Lately I bought a tablet and a phone. I have a reputation among my friends for having ‘old technology’, and I am often reluctant to stop using something simply because a newer version of x has come out, or that the newer version does more things. Having said that, I am not exactly a Luddite. I sometimes used my older laptops as experiments in Linux and in overclocking and working beyond their original specifications and default software settings. I’ve found that some laptops that I bought have hardware specs that purposely lock out other operating systems. The Xbox 360 and other consoles notably have measures to detect if a device has been modified and once noticed, locks out and bans the user/machine for what I think is an open and inquisitive exploration into a piece of software.
People should not feel guilty for ‘hacking’ into their store bought hardware and using technology in ways beyond the original company’s design for them. I’ve seen creative mp3 players installed with windows xp just to see if it can be done, and games consoles with fancy lighting. I think that such modifications are an ode of respect to the companies that made these devices, and show a sense of openness and imaginative creativity on part of the consumer, that makes a consumer an active participant in the commodities they buy, and exactly because of this, the things that they buy are not ‘commodities’ but enabling.
Products like the iPad and Windows 8 devices are said to be enabling by all the Press Releases and tech conference presentations, but only in a limited way of thinking and perceiving and using a device. I feel that there’s a political analogy here. I think about geographical space lately. In the area where I live, there are lots of shops, and lots of houses, but nothing else. There’s a public library, which had the threat of closure more than once in the past decade. However there’s not really much for anyone if you don’t have spending money or a mortgage/monthly rent. The physical space where I live is exceptionally limited in the terms set by consumption: you live, sleep, and buy.
For this reason I think that my local library is an amazing place. I like going to the library just to peruse the books. I see a lot of self-improvement books, a lot of books about Tamil culture (a cultural group who have a distinct presence locally) and even a few comics, graphic novels and Mangas. The library is a place where you can read magazines and newspapers at no charge and there are sometimes local Councillors having surgeries and children’s storytelling meetings there.
Outside of this little haven of the library is shop upon shop. The options are limited in shops: you buy, and that’s about it. This can be very isolating and exceptionally limiting to the imagination. With my group of friends we sometimes try to subvert the perception of geographical urban space by inserting a bit of humour (and confusion) to the area. One thing we like doing for example is going out in costume or wearing a horse mask, the breaching of our ascribed sense of conformity to public spaces shocks most of the public. Another thing we sometimes do is while in a moving car, play a bit of music on our instruments, usually people are amused or bemused. I think there is a significance to being bemused. It shows the possibility of other alternatives for use of that space. The ideal of art is to show an interpretation of the world differently and hopefully show that we can differently interpret the world as it is.
Technology is similar. Technologies are sold to us so often as things that are enabling and yet, when we are overwhelmed with it, or when we are sanctioned for using technology in an alternative way, this is hardly enabling. It saddens me that there is such limitations often built in to hardware, that limits alternative uses.
Another aspect of my woe about my hardware is that there’s such a waste. I’m getting rid of a few old laptops this month, and once upon a time they probably cumulatively cost £8000-9000 all together, and now I have to pay for someone to get it off my hands! All of the machines I’m getting rid of this month are not even over 10 years old. By contrast I still have some VCRs from the mid-late 1990s and they work as well as in the days in which they were used most.
There seems to be a turning point with old technology, certain things like a first generation Nintendo/Famicom console are lovely products in their retro glory. A friend of mine recently bought a flat and one of his ‘christening’ gifts was to set up his NES in his fancy HD big screen TV. We found that Duck Hunt, the game that uses a light gun, no longer works on new TVs, because of the way that the light gun was designed for CRTs (old style TVs) to map and track pixels. Something like a NES, a SNES or maybe even a Dreamcast, are seen as retro-tastic mementos of a golden past and childhood or teenhood or early adulthood, and yet my old laptops which are highly more sophisticated technically than games consoles, and my printers and USB accessories have been made to be obsolete by the successors.
Old games consoles from the 80s and 90s are quaint bits of retro, yet consoles from the 2000s are a heavy burden, because the new generation of consoles are basically the same in functionality – but do more! I think that the same cannot be said for the transition between say, the NES and the N64 – they do vastly different things and enable vastly different possibilities. However between say the PS3 and PS4 – they are basically the same machine where one does vastly more than the other but there is no qualitative transition of gaming or thinking or concept.
I would consider this way of consuming computer games and hardware to be in line with the critical Adorno view of late capitalist culture. Like Adorno I think that the transitions to newer technologies and the pressures to take up things like tablets and HD televisions; Blu-Rays, Tivos, 4G and cloud services are difficult to avoid to function in the modern world, but it is highly wasteful and makes things obsolete very quickly. I really love my new tablet computer at the moment, but I know there will be a day when it becomes hurrendously outdated and obsolete compared to what comes in the future.
What can we do about this? I feel like this is the open question that I cannot quite answer yet. I think this is the interesting open question of our culture. How do we find ways of opposing the trend of creating so much waste, while keeping modern? One thing I have done is that I’ve opened up my old laptops and taken various chips out and I’m going to re-use some of the hard drives and play with the RAM cards and explore the processor chipsets in the same child like way that I used to break things to see how they worked. One other reason I kept some of my old hard drives and processors are that they are a physical memento, a sentimental trinket that looks cool kept in my room, but they are also my, if you will excuse the amphiboly, memories.