DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN 29-November-1999

New World

Don't buy a computer

JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


ne of the side-effects of being someone who writes about computers is that I get asked -- constantly -- for advice about buying a computer. It's like being a doctor, I suppose; outside of the office, I'm expected to provide free advice. I'll be at a party, I'll be playing an online game, I'll be visiting distant relatives and someone will find out that I write about computer technology. "So, uh, I was thinking about buying a computer, and I was wondering what I should do."

Here, then, is my answer: don't.

Don't buy a computer. Stay offline. Don't get e-mail or a website. Invest in a good encyclopedia or (considering how computer prices are falling) a nice dinner out. Don't buy a computer.

The thing is, most people who are buying computers now don't know why they're doing it. The proliferation of websites showing up in ads, and all of the talking-heads blathering about "e-commerce", may make them think that they need one to somehow "stay competitive". Or maybe they've been brow-beaten into it by kids who demand it "for school" (when everyone knows that the kids will really be playing SplatterQuest for hours). Or perhaps they just have a vague sense of future-dread: a fear of being left behind while everyone else is web-surfing into the next century.

Trust me, it doesn't get any easier once you own a computer. The combination of rapid acceleration of technology and rapid collapse of prices makes any purchase you make now a foolish waste of money. That 400MHz speed demon you bought for the cut-rate $1000 a year ago now stands as a testament to impatience -- 700MHz machines can now be had for less money. And if you wait, 1000MHz (or "1GHz" as the industry will call it) machines are just around the corner. And 2GHz machines a bit beyond that. And so on.

And what will you do with this screaming altar to the silicon gods? If you're like most people, you'll write a few letters, play a few games, and spend hours chatting up some 18 year old girl from Madrid who is really a 14 year old boy in Wisconsin (or a handsome lawyer-model in Manhattan who is really a swollen security guard in Cape Town, as appropriate). For this, you're spending several hundred to several thousand dollars to buy more computing power than was used in the entire Apollo program to put astronauts on the moon.

Yes, yes, I know. E-mail is wonderful. The web is a storehouse of fascinating information. And computer games are better than sitting in front of a TV for hours. But with e-mail comes piles of spam and letters from distant relatives, with the web comes crass advertisements and repackaged 'content' cut into short-attention-span sizes, and with computer games come... well, computer games are fine. But what many people don't realize is that whether you buy a $1200 PC or a $200 console, you're locked into a cycle of upgrading every 18 months if you want to play new games. Which would you rather have to buy every year and a half?

Once you buy that computer, who are you going to call when things go wrong? Bill Gates isn't going to answer the phone when your spanking new Windows2000 box freezes with a blue screen of death, or your iMacDV "Special Edition" stares at you with a baleful blinking floppy disk icon. And your computer will crash. Yes, it will. Because computers, and the software and peripherals that go with them, are still made with the idea that being faster and being cheaper is better than being functional.

The truly sad thing is, the computer companies are not to blame for that; we are. The consumers who drool over the latest G4/500 or Pentium III/700 simply because the numbers are bigger are the driving force behind companies that don't have to care about quality, because The Numbers Are Bigger. Is Windows2000 better than Windows98? It must be -- 2000 is bigger than 98. QED.

Having a computer contributes to some fairly unwholesome personal habits and social trends. Why talk to someone when you can send e-mail? Why think about privacy when you can get free stuff just by giving up personal information to marketers? Why keep your neighborhood economy alive when you can one-click-shop and have anything from books to tampons drop-shipped to your porch the next day?

It gets worse. Sitting at your computer all day sucks electricity that, unless you have solar panels on your roof, probably comes from some coal-fired plant spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. Computers are almost entirely non-recyclable; worse, they often get thrown out as useless long before they stop functioning. And having a monitor shooting electromagnetic radiation into your face from 18 inches away can't be very good for you.

What's the solution? This is about the point in the essay where I should trot out some nice, reassuring words to explain why, actually, you should buy a computer. But I won't. If any of this has touched a nerve of doubt in you, go with your instincts -- don't buy that computer. If you can happily ignore all of the above, either you're already too far gone or you need -- in a deep, visceral, way -- to get one.

I know I'm too far gone. There are 3 times as many computers in my house than there are people. I have more friends and business partners outside of my state -- or outside of my country -- than I do within my own city. My life is, for better and for worse, completely online. Don't do what I do -- don't buy a computer.

And, when you've ignored me, and gone out to get the swoopiest new machine around, drop me some e-mail and say hi.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - 29-November-1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Gavin Dudley: Dr Byte
* Rupert Neethling: Toolbox
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley