In praise of "crap" technology

I visited my little brother, a dedicated minimalist, last month. In general, I think of myself as not particularly consumerist-y. But hanging out with somebody who is sooo much better at not consuming pointlessly has left me with a lot to think about.

Gadgets are one of the biggest things I've been pondering. This is not, especially, my area of weakness when it comes to consumerism. (That would be landscaping plants, furniture, and kitchenware.) But I did recently get my first smart phone. I have been, lately, complaining about the weight of my old MacBook. And I have been contemplating a new MP3 player. In other words, I'm at a potential buying stage in my slow-moving gadget cycle. Do I need to be, though? And if there is a reason to buy some new stuff, how should I make those choices?

That's probably why Thomas Hayden's essay In Praise of Crap Technology struck a chord with me. In it, Hayden waxes poetic about his $19.99 Coby MP3 player. It's a product that's supposed to suck. It's something you buy reluctantly, when you can't afford an iPod. But, apparently, nobody bothered to let the Coby know about that. It's boring. It's ugly. It doesn't have the latest features. But, as Hayden points out, it's also durable, inexpensive, inherently theft-deterrent, and reliable. It also does exactly what he needs it to do. No less. And no more.

My portable audio technology needs are simple. A few hundred well-chosen—by me, dammit—songs and a half-dozen episodes of the WTF podcast and I’m good to go. My trusty Coby does all that, with an FM radio tuner included. (I do wish it had AM too—the crap technology of the air—but why gripe?) Most important, it’s worth next to nothing so I’m virtually assured never to lose it—unlike apparently every iPhone prototype ever—and I don’t cringe at all when my toddler flings it across the room. And because the next Coby is sure to be just as mediocre, I’ll never need to upgrade—I’ve stepped off the escalators of feature creep and planned obsolescence, and all the expense and toxic e-waste that come with them. Crap technology, it turns out, is green technology.

Now that's a damn good point. Granted, crap technology can be dirty if it's actually crap—something you're going to have to throw out and replace every year. But it's nice to get this reminder that there's a lot of room between crap-that's-actually-crap and the-newest-most-expensive-thing. That grey zone is home to Hayden's Coby.

It's also home to the Sansa Clip my husband and I have shared for half a decade. It's now outlasted two iPods—one that was lost/stolen and another with a faulty battery. Where those more-coveted gadgets failed, the Sansa came through. And it's stuff like this that brings up an important question I need to ask myself more often: What makes "crap" crap?

I've been pretty proud of my ability to resist the constant-upgrade/early-adopter treadmill. But maybe I need to be less smug about that. Because, until I really thought about how good the Sansa Clip has been to me, I was thinking about replacing it with an iPod. And there's not really a point to that. Because I already own good technology. It's just a piece of good technology that happens to be "crap".

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Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century, my second essay collection, is now officially available from Tachyon Books, and in finer bookstores everywhere.

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Last month, Armando Herrera Corral was wounded when a package delivered to his office at Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education turned out to be a bomb.

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