Contemplating a Dead Computer

As computers get better and better, does our attachment to them get less and less?

Illustration: Brain Stauffer

It was my early morning ritual. Having pushed the button to boot my computer, I turned my attention to the waiting pleasure of steaming coffee. After a few delicious sips, I glanced at the monitor. Strangely, it was black. I pushed the button again. To my distress, this had no effect on the monitor or on the absolute quiet of my PC. I unplugged the PC, waited, and tried again, to no avail.

How could this be? Had the computer died in its sleep? It had worked flawlessly for a year, including the night before. Perhaps that first jolt of electricity in the morning had—like a too-strong cup of coffee—arrested its frantic little heartbeat.

I spent the next hour pushing the on button repeatedly in the ridiculous belief that the computer would spring to life. Then I went into troubleshooting mode. It wasn’t hard to determine that the motherboard itself was the problem, and that issue, as they say, is above my pay grade. The computer was officially dead.

As I drove to the local computer store, I thought about how the world has changed in the last couple of decades. Once, I would have fixed that computer and bragged about my accomplishment. Once, I would have mourned my dead computer as a friend who had stood by my side. But that was no longer the case. As I was leaving the house, my wife had called out to me. ”Buy one that will last,” she had admonished. ”None of them will,” I replied.

I realized that I had come to think of computers and other electronic gadgets as disposable. Even if they don’t break, they’re good for only a couple of years anyway. Technological progress overruns them, and they get bogged down with the accumulation of junk. The sad reality is that they’re not worth fixing. The cost of identifying and fixing the problem is more than that of a new system. After all, electronic circuitry gets ever less expensive, while the cost of skilled labor escalates.

That evening I was having dinner with some friends, and I mentioned what had happened. ”But there aren’t any moving parts,” someone remarked. ”What could go wrong?” It was a good question. Anywhere something whirs, like the hard drives, or where there is burning heat, like around the microprocessor, we expect bad things might happen. The good news is how remarkably robust electronic circuitry is. Hundreds of millions of transistors must do their jobs perfectly. I always consider it a miracle that computers work in the first place. But once they do, the circuits seldom fail.

I’ve always taken a great pride in the engineering achievements embodied in a computer. The sophistication and complexity of the software and the hardware—and in the network beyond—epitomize the wonderful progress we have made. But here I am at the store looking at new computers and thinking of how little I miss the one that has just quit working. I’m thinking instead that the real value was my data, and that for once, the hard drive had outlived its host. My precious data was still safe.

Ah, but I had jumped to this conclusion too quickly. First, my backup routines had been imperfect; I had not backed up frequently enough. After all, the computer had always worked, hadn’t it? Worse, my computer had outsmarted itself. The manufacturer had cleverly used two hard drives, which appeared to the operating system as a single logical drive in a RAID array—brilliant!—but alas, striping the data across the drives in a way that only the dead motherboard fully understood. Not in a way that would be impossible to reconstruct, but once again the considerations were time and expense. And once again, it wasn’t worth fixing.

Home again, I bid farewell to my deceased computer. The moment of truth was upon me. Could I put the machine out with the trash? Alas, no. I still harbor the hope that the next time I push the button, my computer will come alive.

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