Saturday, September 10

I left my "real" laptop (the one with a decent-sized screen, a non-chiclety keyboard, and 8 times the amount of RAM that my first computer had in total drive space) at work yesterday. As a result, I wound up digging out the little white Eee PC I bought on a whim a couple of years back.

This is a strange device. It's arguably more resource-constrained than my current phone. It looks like a cheap piece of plastic, because it is. There's a certain appeal to it anyway.

Showing up in parallel with the rise of the phone-as-computer and just before the advent of tablets will probably leave these in one of those weird historical lacunae where normal people will forget they ever existed, but I do think the netbook has been a pretty telling development in the late-stage emergence of cheap, ubiquitous computing.

In its guts, the Eee is a vastly more powerful piece of hardware than the mid-90s Pentium that shaped my life so much, let alone the Apple IIs and Macintoshes which preceded it in my affections. But the role it plays is one traditionally reserved for an entirely different and ostensibly more archaic class of machine. Where the personal computer was for so long an island, a city, a little world unto itself, the Eee is all surface and contact point: Fundamentally, it is a terminal.

The thing is that, on reflection, this is substantially true of most every computer I physically touch. True, I might carry around a copy of my development environment or a pile of data. Occasionally I run software too resource intensive to live on the network just yet. But in the main, whatever computer I am using simply1 hosts a display and control layer for some larger system. Even most of the music I listen to is hosted remotely and streamed through a thin local interface.

At 30, I'm a product of the early years of the mass-adoption of the network. Ever since the days of dial-up, being cut off from the public Internet has felt like a disconnection, an interrupt. That feeling had a lot of influence on the structure of my life, but at first it just seemed to signify that I was a nerd. A bit of an outlier with something you could have described as an addiction to particular media. I think we've now reached a qualitatively different phase of our relationship to the systems we use. The seemingly old-line network reality I was tapping into when I got my first shell account has scaled up and out into something else entirely. A computer2 absent the network doesn't now feel disconnected; it feels useless.


1 Yeah, I know. Between web browsers, the X window system, database clients, and a host of messaging protocols and media formats, there is nothing actually simple about any of this. For right now I'm trying to avoid obscuring a central point.

2 Ok, so there are microcontrollers in everything and tiny computers are all over the place masquerading as cameras or car stereos or what-have-you. I'm talking here about overt general-purpose computing devices: desktop machines, laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc.