Thursday, August 1

My ThinkPad has quit booting. Wanting a text editor, I wrack my brain and ransack half the apartment looking for a working machine. One Eee PC has given up the ghost, and the other is nowhere to be found. I have a whole stack of old laptops somewhere, but I’m pretty sure none of them will actually power on. All my desktop hardware has been stashed at the office for years now.

Finally I remember the Raspberry Pi. I have a couple of these sitting in the random-parts box, and in one there’s an SD card with the standard Debian image. Another fifteen minutes of digging for peripherals and I’m in business, at least once I find a jumper to start it in safe mode so I can reset the root password.

The Pi is a terrible machine by most modern standards. It’s slow, memory constricted, and offers little in the way of local storage. It’s also tiny, silent, dirt cheap, and seems to have spawned a lot of enthusiasm for pretty-much-open, user-owned computing in an age of permanent rentership and obfuscating corporate mysticism about The Cloud.

I’ve talked to a lot of engineers and software guys who just can’t quite see it. It seems like everyone has one or two laying around waiting for an application of some kind to emerge, but there’s this feeling that even though we all ordered one because it seemed neat, in the real world either you’re going to use a microcontroller or you’re going to use a real computer, so what’s the point, right?

There’s a lot to be said for the attitude of any given system, though. At the end of the day, maybe the Pi really is just kind of a weird flash in the pan, or at any rate something you could read as a loss-leader marketing campaign for a chipset manufacturer. Maybe. But it’s also a little computer which seems like it wants to be your friend. Like it would be happy to be a tiny world for you step inside and explore and maybe build some things in.

In the age of utility computing and ubiquitous grand-scale networks, an era of every-device-a-client, it’s healthy to be reminded of an earlier dispensation. There was a time when the system in front of you was itself a deep well, a mirror for the soul of the user, a puzzlebox and a stack of blank pages and a refuge from the physics of the mundane. If the Pi recaptures that sense of the individual system as pocket universe, then that’s probably explanation enough.