I have three old computers jammed into my home office, each serving a different purpose. They all function, but none of them is worth the plastic it's made of any more.
My favourite is the Mac Classic on the top shelf of the closet. Beige, boxy, compact and practical, it's a VW Bug of a computer that would never say die. These days, it functions as a filing cabinet. I can't get rid of it because it stores thousands of news stories I've written over the past 13 years. I use it once or twice a year, when I need to look up something that happened, say, seven years ago at Sechelt council. I clamber up on a chair, pull down the trusty Mac, plug it in at the kitchen table and locate my missing factoid.
The 486 serves as a typewriter: it's the only one of my computers attached to a functioning printer. It seems laughable to remember that this was a state-of-the-art power machine back in 1992. Now it's more like a rusting Buick in the driveway, an oversized, underpowered, virus-ridden old hulk taking up valuable space.
But I can't get rid of the 486 either, because it has a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive (how painfully archaic!), which is my only means of reading some of my old journals and fiction. And I can't copy those old disks to more modern media without infecting them with the 486's mysterious virus, acquired, appropriately enough, from a bootleg copy of Doom.
Like Typhoid Mary, the 486 isn't troubled by its own virus infection at all, but it creates infected floppies that are lethal bombs for other computers.
The Compaq laptop is by far the coolest looking of the three, a sleek black Mustang of a computer. Since it's my only computer hooked up to the Internet, it gets by far the most use. Its greatest virtue is that it doesn't take up much space on the desk. Its greatest drawback is that I borrowed it from a good friend about five years ago and never returned it, so every time I check my email, I feel a stab of guilt and think, "I really should give this thing back."
Obviously a new computer is a crying need for my household. But how to get rid of the old ones? How can I throw into the garbage a functioning machine that originally cost thousands of dollars? I was raised in the Scottish tradition: you don't throw away perfectly good things, no matter how old-fashioned, and you certainly don't spend money to replace something that still works.
It galls me to consider that no matter how fancy the computer I buy, it will be obsolete the minute I take it out of the box. Within two years, its heinously expensive software will be totally incompatible with the rest of the world.
Those software engineers have obviously been giving tips on planned obsolescence to the film industry, because the new films I've been waiting to see are not coming out on video tape. If I want to rent Supersize Me, I'll have to buy a DVD player as well.
This kind of thing brings out my Luddite streak. I think back fondly to 1991, when I didn't own a single appliance; I made toast on the stove with a coat hanger and wrote letters by hand. That big, hulking 486 computer was the beginning of an avalanche of consumerism that has left me with a house full of obsolete machines. It seems a doubtful sort of progress.