Fountain Pens · Nostalgia · Tech

Technological sweet spots

I look back on the days of my Amiga computers with a fondness totally out of proportion with the capabilities or usefulness of the technology. We have come so far since then, with phones that are more powerful than our entire home computer set-ups; heck – watches that are more powerful than our entire home computer set-ups were! Although I don’t think in real terms that home computing has become more affordable – a new computer is still a purchase you have to think about – it has become more fully integrated with our lives, more mainstream, less hobbyist.

And yet.

For all their power and their dinky proportions, computers aren’t anywhere near as interesting as they used to be. They have moved away from being exotic and challenging toys to become nothing more than highly adaptable tools. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be without my computer, or my smart phone, although I have moved back to a plain old wristwatch after five years with an Apple Watch and I can’t quite bring myself to buy an iPad again, much as I think I’d like one. I definitely spend more time with my computer than with any other object, use it more widely than anything else I own, but somehow I find it less fun than it was in the old days.

The thing is, back in the day, although a computer itself was a big purchase, all the little extras you could add on were a lot more affordable and that made owning a computer a hobby in which you could make progressive “improvements”. I mean, nowadays I’d have to think very hard indeed about whether I’d want to invest in more than one leather case for my iPhone, but back then I could bung in extra memory and even change a hard drive for very little outlay. Now that many computers are sealed units, the little tweaky things have been taken out of our hands and an upgrade generally means an entire new machine. You can still build your own computer, but pleasant tinkering is redudant.

When I had an Amiga, I would spend hours poring over slim magazines which were filled with articles and advertisements for interesting little extras that allowed me to tinker. Bits of hardware, bits of software, bits that made minor improvements to the speed or the memory. I had dinky tools to remove little screws and there were fascinating flat ribbon connectors between different components. Software was something I could buy in a box, with an instruction booklet, I could touch it, it was tangible. I loved ordering things for the computer and them coming through the post in tiny boxes. Or going into computer shops (in Norwich we had a shop called One Step Beyond) and them being Aladin’s caves filled with things you didn’t know you might want until you saw them. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Apple Store, but I miss the old shops.

It turns out that computing is not the hobby it was and that makes me slightly sad.

However, I realised after writing about my new pen, that using fountain pens is the hobby that computing used to be. It’s the hobby where I can tinker, where I can spend a little money on a new ink, or a some new paper, and have a ton of enjoyment testing it out with my existing hardware. Even pens themselves can be bought for quite little outlay (or lots and lots of outlay if you’re inclined) and each one will be subtly different. They are not merely decorative items, and, whilst they undoubtedly serve a useful purpose in my life, beyond that they have a charm of their own, they are fun. I understand them well enough to be able to resolve some issues and I love to read about them, about people collecting, owning, using them, just like I used to enjoy reading about the Amiga computers, seeing what upgrades people had installed, how they had designed their screen, which version of the operating system they were running.

In fact, the only significant difference I can see between the old Amiga forums online and the current fountain pen forums is that the Amiga ones were generally populated by 14-18 year old boys and a few girls and the fountain pen ones are generally populated by middle-aged men and women. Hell, we’re probably the same people!

Another striking resemblence is that neither of my sisters had the slightest interest in computers as a hobby and neither of them has any interest in fountain pens. In fact, both of these hobbies are things which I know make them question my sanity. Further evidence, if further evidence were even necessary, that I was dumped upon the family by aliens and they are just looking after me until my real people come to collect me and take me back to Planet Geek. When I get back there, by the way, I’m going to write a full report in fountain pen about all the strange things I observed whilst living with this weird family on Planet Earth! It’s going to be quite a read, I can tell you.

9 thoughts on “Technological sweet spots

  1. I did not take an interest in computers until I started working in the school. Come to find out, I have quite the knack for them and they are very intuitive to me. I love learning new programs too. In fact, our IT director often asks for my help with things. LOL.

  2. Wonderful! I’ve found over the years that IT departments and specialists can be good with hardware but that doesn’t mean they will understand much about the software you are using. Knowing the software will definitely make you a useful person to have around.

  3. It is interesting looking back on how the personal computers developed, in our lifetime. I started out with a credit card sized device that you could type names into and it would sort them alphabetically! Then I got the Psion Organiser and followed with their new products, devouring the instruction books until 4am in my excitement. Trying to get one to talk to a printer was a major achievement! Floppy discs seem like dinosaurs now.
    A fountain pen is a lot easier to understand!

  4. I never had a Psion, but I always thought they looked so cool. I did have Palms and I only really began to like mobile phones when they started to have the kind of features I enjoyed on my Palms.

  5. I do computing for a living, so that takes the hobby out of it, alas! And I’ve been doing it long enough so that things have come full circle: new developments remind me of something I’ve seen 20-30 years ago in terms of the impact on the existing technology and the drive to upgrade everything in sight. And I can spot the tell-tale signs of technologies likely to perish soon after introduction. We’ve been there before…

    Fountain pens however remain stable. I’ve been using them for longer than I can write – I used to draw in ink before that. Paper and ink has been around for thousands of years, and will be around well after the “indestructible” CDs and memory sticks of today will loose all usefulness and become unreadable due to the lack of reading devices, much like magnetic tapes and floppy disks are today. It is for this very reason that I buy paper versions of the books I want to keep – I want to be able to read them 20 years from now, when my e-reader will undoubtedly have died.

  6. High-tech helps us to do some things a lot better and many things a lot faster, but it isn’t actually good for everything. I see people making quite simple tasks very convoluted in order to do them in a “paperless” way. I remembered just this week that printed magazines and newspapers are a much better way of consuming news and views than all the digital media put together.
    Which I think proves that I have achieved my ultimate life aim and become a dinosaur!

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