Idealism As My Decrepit Linux Computer

I write this, with great struggle and enormous contest of will, on a third-hand, ten-year-old laptop running a version of Ubuntu that I can only describe as “whatever packages I could get the hardware to support.” The story of how I acquired this gem is worth noting.

Back when I was an idealistic young whippersnapper fresh into the world of public libraries, I became aware of several facts about my life.

  1. I was living in a world where endless consumer appetite was taken for granted
  2. I was sufficiently capable with technology to manage Ubuntu Linux
  3. Public library work pays you in actual peanut shells sometimes

I found the first point insulting on a few levels. First of all, I resented being cultivated as a consumer like a farmer fattens a pig. Annoying! Degrading! Raises certain uncomfortable questions about bacon! Second, I already felt that it wasn’t logical to expect eternal growth from anything – if nothing else, we’d eventually run out of monitor components and rare earth minerals. Getting a new computer every 18 months seemed unethical. (Bacon questions aside.)

The second point had more to do with the development of Ubuntu than with my own tech skills. While I’ve got a handful of tech classes under my belt, I’m mainly self-taught by way of my many screw-ups. The fact that a Linux exists for fools like me is extremely helpful.

At last, I had to face the fact that I couldn’t shell out $1000 every two years for a laptop.

That’s why, in 2014, I bought a used Lenovo Thinkpad off Ebay for $200, no promises asked or given. Boy howdy has this computer lived. The first thing I did was stick a USB in it and turn it into a Frankenstein’s monster of an Ubuntu laptop. That first build worked pretty OK, but as the years went on, the laptop’s ability to adjust to upgrades suffered. At this point in time, it works, but that’s about all you can say about it. LibreOffice causes it to freeze. WordPress in the browser lags so much that I’m typing entire sentences before they appear (with all their various errors.)

However, not only have I saved tons of sweet cash by not buying a new laptop for eight years, I’ve successfully kept this piece of history out of the waste stream. Isn’t that worth something?

I think it speaks to a larger issue. This laptop is functional, but it’s not convenient. If I want to write something, I need to do so in Google Drive first and then copy it. If I want to execute a complex browser function, I have to be patient. If I want to use the mousepad, I need to force a restart and not let the computer sleep while it’s recharging. All of this works – in 1970 it would have still been a technological miracle and everybody would have taken it in stride. But the fact that there are conveniences available for the low price of $1000 and my moral high horse makes the laptop a burden to me.

I think this is why it’s so often unhelpful to ask people to make sacrifices for an abstract good. Buy local often translates into buy for triple the cost, and anyway, the people want bananas. Go green is a great marketing slogan for people who can shell out for supposedly eco-friendly products, but the reality involves more clotheslines and lentils than the average American wants to deal with. After all, dryers and beef are right there. It’s pretty miserable to take your stiff, damp clothes off the line as the first drops of rain patter down, knowing all the while that there’s a layaway plan on a state-of-the-art Maytag at Best Buy.

I’ve written before about the problems with green consumerism, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about the problems of green anti-consumerism. It’s not about mental toughness, self-denial, caring, discipline, or any of that jargon-heavy moralia. It’s about whether you can get your kid’s diapers dry and in the house before it starts to pour. It’s about whether you can still edit your website with a recycled computer. I think it’s arguable that these are problems beget by a modern age that cares less about people than it does about pace. However, we’re all stuck with that pace now. If we don’t participate, we get dragged along by the hair and essentially lose out on stuff.

I think about this whenever I encounter schools of thought that are against kids using electronics for moral reasons. (I’m looking at you, Waldorf School.) When I was at Nevins Library, one of the biggest parts of my job was sitting down with new tech users and teaching them how to use Word and Excel, and sometimes helping them get email addresses and fill out web forms. These skills were critical to their ability to get hired. They were also so far out of reach financially speaking that my patrons hadn’t even considered bothering to develop them. The closest modem may as well have been on the moon. The hit to their employability was devastating, but that didn’t change anything. They were being dragged along by a high-tech society, like it or not, and they were getting all the attendant injuries. If you have the privilege to afford a computer at home, then standing on your principles may do nothing more than land your kids in the same place where my patrons were: without enough experience to use a keyboard. You’re probably right that the digital revolution has done more harm than good. But holding out on moral grounds isn’t a good solution either.

Individual action will always be meaningful and I’ll respect it until the day I die. (And on that day, they’ll probably bury this goddamned laptop with me.) But just being the change isn’t enough and never was. The key, as ever, is going to be collective action and systemic change. For that, we’re going to have to be a little merciful to each other and ourselves.