Why I’m into vintage technologyPosted: June 30, 2012
A long-time reader of this weblog (and other places where I write) has recently emailed me asking a few questions of a more personal nature. That is, more focussed on my relationship with vintage Macs and vintage technology rather than being the usual “Hey, I’ve just been given this old Mac and I was wondering what I could do with it, can you help?” System-Folder-related kind of email I receive.
So I thought I could publish my response here, at least regarding the question as to why I’m into vintage technology.
For starters, I’m less of a hoarder than I used to be. Up to 2005 I’ve lived in a rather large flat for one person. I also had a garage and even a small cellar. At that time I used to go to occasional ‘vintage Mac rescue parties’ with fellow vintage Mac enthusiasts who shared tips and information over a small network. We used to exchange messages like Hey, I heard that this friend of L. has a graphic studio and they’re throwing away a couple of Power Macintoshes and a LaserWriter. Anyone interested? Salvaging and ‘liberating’ Macs that were otherwise on their way to the rubbish dump was refreshing and felt right. Some of those Macs were keepers, others I gave to other people to introduce them to the Mac platform. I was really a Mac evangelist back then, and every ‘convert’ was a success.
In 2005 I relocated in another country, and went to live with another person. I had to throw or give a lot of vintage stuff away. Here I have no real garage, no cellar, and the only place I have to store my vintage Macs and assorted accessories is a wall closet. But anyway, to me, being into vintage technology doesn’t really mean being an avid collector always on the lookout for a rare machine or device. It means surrounding myself with a selected collection of machines and tools that I find aesthetically pleasing on the outside but that can also be put to good use. Apart from a few pieces, everything in my small collection is still functional and has a specific role.
The main reason I’m surrounded by vintage tech in my studio is that these machines still serve a purpose. The fact that ‘progress’ has obsoleted them does not mean they have stopped being useful. There are people who keep shifting to the newest gadget, getting rid of the old one in the process, and when they’ve finally adjusted to that new gadget, the merciless march of technology is about to introduce another, more updated model. When people discover I’m still using my Newton MessagePads, to make an obvious example, sometimes they feel the urge to tell me: But why? Why use those when an iPhone or iPad could easily replace them? Other times people ask me why I still write some of my literary creations on a Macintosh SE/30 using WriteNow or Word 5.1a, or why I’m setting up a personal library database using FileMaker Pro 2 on a Colour Classic. Why, when you could easily do that with any modern device available today?
Often I’m tempted to just answer Because I can, but I don’t do that because I’m not into vintage technology to just show off. Other people have done way more amazing things with obsolete devices than I have, like setting up an Apple //c as a physical terminal for a Mac OS X machine. The reason I still write on a SE/30 every now and then is that it’s still one of the best distraction-free user experiences after pen and paper (at least for me). The hardware and software may be 20 years old, but their synergy is as functional (and as responsive) as a modern MacBook Pro running TextEdit. I’m building a personal library database on a Colour Classic because I want it to be a personal tool, delivering information in a card-like view on a beautiful piece of industrial design that it’s not there just to be looked at, but to be used as well.
In other words: vintage machines, for me, keep being gorgeous tools to physically interact with. I simply enjoy the user experience and interface. The black and white minimalism of System 6’s GUI has retained some kind of agelessness and ultimately gives me a ‘richer vibe’ than, say, using Mac OS X 10.0.4. or Mac OS 8. I generally hate to use cars as analogy when talking about computers, but the ‘kick’ I get out of using vintage tech is very similar to the vintage car enthusiast’s. Today’s cars are more efficient, less polluting, safer to drive, and so on. But in a way they’re all the same. They’ve lost the personality and the daring designs of the cars of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. The feeling you get by driving a 1967 VW Beetle, or a Citroën DS 21, or an original Mini, a Jaguar E-Type, a Mercedes-Benz 300SL “Gull-wing” is definitely more intense and fulfilling — if you’re that kind of enthusiast, of course.
Or take photography: I have a small collection of film cameras (Instant, SLRs and Rangefinders) which I still use when I’m out for a serious photowalk. I put them on rotation and still use them all, from the small Olympus XA2 to the bulky Canon T90. In this case, my preference towards these cameras is not just related to the feeling of having aesthetically pleasing tools in my hands. I also believe they’re still better designed tools than most of their digital counterparts. They can take high-quality photos with fewer and simpler controls. Their backs have no buttons or dials. You focus manually by moving a ring. You select a few preferences by turning a simple knob or wheel that happens to be right under your thumb, so you can focus on your photography and not on the tool. Their viewfinders are bigger, brighter and more straightforward, not ridden with rows and columns displaying confusing data. Their build quality is superb (my Canonflex RM was built in 1962 and still works perfectly 50 years after). Some of them have been built to operate without batteries (this is progress, folks, not your shiny Micro Four Thirds gadget). So yes, even in this case, the vintage piece of tech is still serving a purpose, giving me results that more modern digital cameras still struggle to achieve.
In the end, I’m into vintage technology because I find it fascinating and because I still give a shit about the past, despising the current throwaway culture that wants people to be mindless, ever-forward-looking consumers.