Minimal Computing

I first came across the term "minimal computing" via Alex Gil, and it immediately captured my interest. I'd been thinking about various aspects of small scale computing for a while, but hadn't really framed it this way before. Like many good ideas, it seems exceeding obvious in hindsight. Modern computing is so unabashedly maximalist, but we rarely label it as such. Naming minimal computing both highlights the absurdity of the status quo and gives us a positive direction to investigate.

While I appreciate how my brain works differently when I'm writing by hand, I've long preferred typing, especially if I'm hoping to actually read the words later. Having a smartphone with me pretty much all the time has been great for jotting down ideas, sometimes surprisingly long, but two things have been gnawing at me more and more: typing with my thumbs is unnecessarily hard on my body, and it's painful watching my phone battery drain as my thoughts get translated to tiny Retina characters. I'm just typing--why is this taking up so precious energy?

While my phone is undeniably convenient, is isn't efficient at all. Of course, it's shockingly overpowered for most tasks, but that also means it's wasteful in terms of energy, which is bad both for environmental impact and in terms of reliability. As my aging iPhone SE battery becomes less and less effective, lasting far less than a day on a single charge, this whole situation just feels...bad.

So I've been wrestling with this idea of how minimal computing could actually fit into my everyday life, especially within E. F. Schumaker's framing of appropriate technology. Is it possible to get just the thing I need, and not more? And to be super clear: this isn't just about minimalism as an aesthetic--I want specific practical benefits, too. I want longer battery life, fewer distractions, easier maintenance, and a longer useful life for the device.

I thought about a typewriter, actually, but it didn't feel right, and it's just not practical. I like digital things, and it seems ridiculous to go through paper and toner ribbon. Sure, you might like how it looks and feels, but that's surely an aesthetic choice, not a practical one.

I read up about hooking up Raspberry Pis with repurposed Kindles for monitors. I looked into e-ink screens. I experimented with running text to speech on raw keyboard input, and turning my laptop screen brightness all the way down. None of it felt quite right.

And then I found it. While searching for electronic typewriters, I came across the perfect relic of the near past: the AlphaSmart.

Every once in a while, there's an idea that failed in its time, but somehow becomes the perfect solution in a later era, in a different context.

The AlphaSmart was a cheap electronic word processor designed to be purchased in bulk for schools. It has a four-line LCD display, and a full keyboard. That's about it. On the AlphaSmart 3000, you can work on 8 different files at once, each up to about 25 pages long. It runs on 3 AA batteries, and has an advertised battery life of 700 hours.

Seven. Hundred. Hours.

But my favorite thing is how the files sync. Most devices of this era had proprietary sync software that is long obsolete, and if they'd written directly to some media, it'd probably be long abandoned by now.

But the AlphaSmart does something brilliant: it behaves as a USB keyboard.

You can plug it into nearly any device with a USB port, press the send button, and it simply types the characters as if a human were typing. It is both elegant and amazingly future proof.

As a bonus, if you don't press send, it behaves as a normal keyboard, with each (human) keypress going straight to the computer.

It's so simple and perfect that it's making me change the whole way I think about minimal computing, and shifting the horizon of my imagination. It's making me think differently about what can be mined from the past. How can we look at the old patterns that came from necessity and map them onto the present in order to make our technology more appropriate, and more ecologically sound?

We used to write programs on paper, translate them to punch cards, then wait for time on the expensive computer. Perhaps there are advantages, even now, to thinking through problems (and even programs) on lower tech, less connected, less consumptive devices, then plugging in to the high energy, high power devices when we really need them. Maybe we can even share those more expensive, more resource intensive (in their manufacture as well as their use) computers. Maybe the so-called personal computing revolution has actually pulled us away from something more appropriate, and arguably more radical.

So now, I'm collecting some of these ideas into a project I'm calling Degrowth Industries, in reference to the 70s concept of degrowth as a necessary direction for the survival of humanity, and exemplified in The Limits to Growth report from 1972. (To say their recommendations were not followed would be somewhat of an understatement.)

Clearly, Degrowth Industries is an anti-industry Industry in many ways, but it is not an anti-technological one. I do believe that using the appropriate technology--some old, some new--is the path forward.

I'm not totally sure what this project will turn into. It might just be continued musings on appropriate technology, scale, and creative reuse. Or it might become a catalog of approaches, of recipes, of solutions, that collectively paint a different future.

Maybe it becomes a Whole Earth Catalog without anywhere to send the money orders.

In any case, if any of these thoughts pique your interest, I hope you'll think about these things along with me, and we can collectively start to imagine our appropriate technological futures.

(Yes, this was written on an AlphaSmart 3000. You can get one for about $20.)

█  Jesse Kriss, 31 Jan 2019