Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Mr. GoodByte Rides Again


My second computer column alias was Mr. GoodByte, a name conflating car maintenance and computing. It used automobile analogies to illustrate computer concepts. The wrench still fits.

Yet there is a fundamental difference in how we relate to cars and computers. In the last century, we were known as a car culture. Digital is pervasive in this century but is it a culture?

Unlike the car, digital things take many forms and some are invisible. There is no simple icon to represent all digital objects, whereas a car is still a box with four wheels (color may vary).

The cultural key is how we feel about these objects. People not only love specific cars, they revere them. No one loves any computer. What we love about cars is the hardware. Software is the ghost in the machine: invisible, unknowable, and unlovable.

First were the mainframe computers (very big), and then mini-computers (small in comparison but much larger than their successors, the micro-computers). Now called personal computers, they’re like a car controlled by one person at a time.

Early cars were a hobby, just like early home computers. Then came reliability—and roads, gas stations, and roadside everything. Cars could be fixed and kept running, even antique model T’s. Old computers barely collect dust in a few museums.

Cars were never built to to be upgraded. Many people traded in every three years simply because they wanted a new car. But this was only possible with a large free market for used-cars.

There is no used-computer market. What’s a computer worth after three years, besides scrap? Computers cost little and are disposable; cars cost much more and keep value. We rarely buy new computers because we want to, rather because we have to.

If cars were made to become obsolete like computers, only the rich would buy new. The rest of us will find ways to keep our old cars rolling. Only a mad genius would fix an old computer.

Antiques, restorations, hot rods, low riders, and resto-mods are not just showpieces at car-gatherings of every shape, size, and price all over the US. Owners enjoy, drive, and love them. Such feelings never did and never will exist for personal computers.

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