Opinion: PC Nostalgia for a simpler – and slower – time

The Commodore 64 has been ‘relaunched’ as a modern Windows PC. Jason Walsh asks if we are getting a bit too nostalgic for times gone by.

You just can’t keep an old computer down. The Commodore 64, an ancient machine of the 8-bit era has been relaunched as a quad-core Ubuntu machine.

OK, it’s not really a Commodore 64, it’s just a computer that is being sold using the name, but there are minority platforms that live on in a kind of radioactive half-life to this very day.

The Amiga, also late of Commodore, just won’t go away, instead living a zombie-like life after death that doesn’t do much other than annoy people into realising that things could have been better if Microsoft hadn’t prevailed. Another undead platform is Risc OS, late of British outfit Acorn, the designers of the legendary BBC Microcomputer.

It’s hard to know what to make of retro computing. On the one hand it’s a perfectly harmless way to while away time but, looked at another way, it is little more than nostalgia for the stone age of information technology. Quite apart from the fact that the new ‘Commodore 64’ has no relationship whatsoever with the original machine, why are so many people suddenly interested in old PCs?

True, may of us enjoy vintage objects – I myself drive a two decade old car that looks as though it is seven decades old – and there has long been a roaring trade in antique clothes, furniture, tableware jewellery and watches, but the comparison doesn’t quite hold.

The joy of a true antique is that it is still useful. Old computers, though, are not always useful. An old computer is more industrial archaeology than it is vintage style. A mint condition Sinclair Spectrum 48K is a beautiful object – but it is an appalling computer. A 50 year old wristwatch can be both beautiful and genuinely useful. The difference is that information technology is subject to continual innovation, timekeeping less so. When it comes to computers, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

It is true that in many instances it is easier to keep an old system running than replace it with a new one – plenty of large corporations and government departments still use ancient mainframes, either actual or virtualised and emulated, for tedious and unchanging tasks such as payroll calculation. As the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

On the other hand, desktop users have little to gain from using an old computer. Retro computing is fine as an amusement or pastime, and some of the old software, games in particular, is certainly worth hanging-on to. On the other hand, the desire to get back to a bygone ‘simpler’ age is a deeply problematic one. The past truly is a foreign country – and an underdeveloped one, at that.

Jason Walsh is a journalist and editor of forth.ie

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