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Why do we feel retro-computing nostalgia?

What if the past was not better, but just more understandable?

The other day, I was watching Wargames, the 1983 movie about a high-school hacker that accidentally starts a countdown to a global nuclear warfare by “playing” a game with a super-intelligent AI.

Wargames owns the status of cult movie for us techno-geek, so much to be featured with an important role in the 80s-nerd-fever-dream book called Ready Player One. If originally it was a futuristic work fueled by the blooming computer revolution, today is a kind of retro-computing porn.

But I am not here to discuss the movie. I wanna talk about the feeling that made me jiggle and excited me at the sight of so much outdated and—let’s be honest—horribly inefficient technology.

Why do we feel attraction for the past?

Retro-Computing Nostalgia

Everybody among developers and computer geeks feels that. We look at the “old web” with dreaming eyes. We see old protocols such as gopher or retro-inspired as Gemini and we feel the lure of the past. We watch a screenshot from Windows 95 and we remember of a lost golden age, and it makes us expect that nothing good will wait for us in the future. IRC and Usenet appear, in our memory, as some kind of peak of human communication. Monochrome Phosphors monitors turn us on. And the less I talk about the Commodore64, the better.

For God’s sake, I wrote the outline of this article on WordPerfect 6 running on FreeDOS 1.3 emulated with qemu. Why? Because I read an article about it. I can open powerful writing tools such as Scrivener in 10 seconds, but a part of me cannot stop thinking that in this limited, constrained tool of a lost civilization “I can finally focus, like people did before.”

The draft of this article in WordPerfect 6 running on FreeDOS 1.3. I knew it made no sense, but it made me happy, nevertheless
Figure 1. The draft of this article in WordPerfect 6 running on FreeDOS 1.3. I knew it made no sense, but it made me happy, nevertheless

Reason 1: it is only nostalgia

There is a clear instinctive answer: nostalgia. Those devices, systems, protocols are not superior to what we have now, but they are the one we grew up with. They weren’t better: it was the world that was different.

WordPerfect didn’t make people more focused (if any), it was a technical constraint. Computers could only do a few things at a time, they were offline most of the time, and we didn’t have a “portable doomscrolling device” and “notification machine” with us from the moment we open our eyes to the one we fall asleep.

Protocols weren’t better, it is that the internet was hundreds of times smaller than it is today. The technical barriers kept some idiots out. The political irrelevance of the Internet at the time made it uninteresting for organized politics.

Then, we were younger. We had a lot of time to waste, to read manuals, to write code for no reason (with no ideas for monetization of getting stars on GitHub). We look back at the technology that “created us,” the software and piece of hardware where we spent our days, and it makes us remember of better times.

And yet… this answer feels only partial.

Reason 2: it was understandable

The nostalgia idea didn’t totally convince me. Let’s think about Wargames again: it features technology from 1983. How can I feel nostalgia for something created before I was born? These things were already outdated the moment I touched my first PC.

And what about all the young people fascinated, like me, by objects they never truly lived? I read comments, from time to time, about people attracted by Usenet even if, for their admission, they have never used it. In their mind, it was a lost artifact of another more vigorous era.

My answer is that old technology was more comprehensible.

Outdated technology wasn’t necessarily better, but it was more understandable and more approachable if you had a “crafty” disposition. Anyone, with some good determination, could have learned how their machine worked from the hardware to the software with a minimal level of abstraction.

You could open your Commodore64, flip through the service manual, and in less than 60 pages, you can see every chip, capacitor, and connection. The “operating system” was essential: this is the memory address, put a program in there and it will run. DOS was a bit more complicated, but still basic: these are the folders, this is autoexec.bat, if you compile this piece of code and load it in memory, it will run.

Even protocols were straightforward. You could implement a client very easily and talk with a server by just messing with a telnet console.

On the other hands, these days, manufacturers tightly seal the hardware, and they make it much smaller, complex and integrated. The operating systems wrap application into layers and layers of sandboxing, notarization, and a single executable interacts with hundreds of components and subsystems. Some mobile OS, straightly forbid you to run unapproved software. Protocols too are “encumbered” by numerous levels of authentication, encryption, metadata, websockets and more.

I am not saying that all this added complexity is necessarily bad. For once, I am glad that online protocols are more secure. I am happy that operating systems are more capable and allow developers to do 100 times more tings in a hundredth of time.

But the old-time simplicity is what we miss. That’s why we enjoy projects like Pico8 and other fantasy consoles. If I want to develop a game, I have to struggle with game engines, model formats, 3d modelers, libraries, shaders, control mapping, rigging, porting, and hundreds of other technical aspects I will never really learn in full. But if I want to build something in Pico8, I have everything I need. I don’t have any decisions to make because the system I’m working with is small enough to fully understand and manage in my head.

A page of the Commodore64 schematics. This is a good example for something that is complicated but it is not complex.
Figure 2. A page of the Commodore64 schematics. This is a good example for something that is complicated but it is not complex.

Lessons from the past

We have to accept the facts in retro-computing nostalgia that are unavoidable. Old technology remembers us of our younger self and, in some sense, we admire it like we do with old archeological artifacts: because they show us the long road we made from there to here. But there is no coming back now. We will never return to those feelings because we are no longer the same persons. The world is just not the same anymore.

However, we are not doomed to complexity. We can still preserve pockets of simplicity in a more complex world. We can still strife for simpler tech by removing the unnecessary cruft; by preferring smaller things we control. We can have ebook libraries that are just “DRM-free ePub files on our PC,” or music libraries made by simply “mp3/flac files in some folders.” We can prioritize communication system that are not proprietary/private but public and accessible, and have our blog in a place we own, so that we do not depend entirely on the opaqueness of big platforms with impenetrable algorithms controlling what we see and who will see what we do.

Of course, we can still enjoy the outer complexity, if we want and when it is convenient. But the goal is to not rely on it. This is not a call for a complexity-free world but for a simplicity-first one.

And while this will never be mainstream, who cares? We are setting up something to for the enjoyment of people who feel nostalgia at an old-ass Apple II. We are the computer geek. Popularity and mainstream was never our concern, anyway.

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