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Ethical Dilemmas of

Posted 2008.05.17 0.00 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

Anthropomorphising Electronics

Many people do it. Some more than others. Think of your computer, PDA, cellphone, etc. as a ‘him’ or ‘her’, rather than an ‘it’. Attribute some feelings or emotions towards it. Perhaps even feel bad / upset if it gets damaged, lost, or stops working. Maybe even feel bad if one doesn’t use it for a while and it gets ‘neglected’.

Although I have been described as having a very logical mind, I confess I do anthropomorphise some of my equipment. Not everything, and perhaps not to the extent that others do. I don’t give things names or address them as him or her (at least, not too often) but I do have a strong emotional association with some of my electronics goodies – primarily, the ones I use the most, the ones that are around me the most.

For me, the association is not strictly with hardware, nor is it strictly with software. For instance, updating the operating system on a computer which which I have a strong ‘bond’, is something I view as merely upgrading the computer, it rettains the same ‘personality’ but just gets better, faster, more-capable. Conversely, upgrading the hardware is the same: It ‘goes to sleep’ in an old box and ‘wakes up’ in a shiney new box that’s better, faster, stronger. In either case, I suppose (warning, techspeek coming) because it wakes with the same IP address, the same user interface / GUI, and all my documents and programs and customizations intact, it ‘looks’ and ‘feels’ like the same entity, just improved in some ways.

In this way, I can trace the ‘lineage’ of (eg.) my current desktop computer back through a number of hardware ‘incarnations’: In 1999 I got a strawberry iMac G3 (one of the ‘bubble’ ones). Since then, hardware-wise, I’ve had an MDD G4-dual processor, then an Intel iMac 17″, and now an Aluminum Intel iMac 20″. I’ve gone through OS9, and a few version of OSX. But to me, they’ve all been “the same computer” emotionally – they’ve gotten faster, better, stronger, more-capable. But I do not feel sadness when a hardware box is retired – what gets retired is an empty shell. That which makes the computer Mine is moved on to the next one.

In 2000 I got an iBook, one of the clamshell ones, it was the Lime Green one. Later that became a white iBook, then an aluminum Power Book. There may have been another iBook in there somewhere, I don’t remember. As with the desktop computers, it’s always been the same Computer to me, just different incarnations.

Here is where things get troublesome, for me: What happens when a ‘line’ is retired? Not upgraded, not moved to a new hardware box, but simply comes to an end?

The iBook/Powerbook line is a fullsize laptop line. I’ve always prefered a smaller format, the micro-pc / sub-notebook / mini-laptop format. Since 1998ish, I have had a Toshiba Libretto 100CT – a laptop computer slightly larger than a VHS cassette. By today’s standards it’s ridiculously outdated. Yet I’ve been using that for ten years, and it still works. It’s undergone only a single hardware reincarnation – and that was not an upgrade. The old hardware simply wore out so I found an identical replacement on ebay and shifted its essense (OS, GUI, data) to the new box. Now after 10 years, I’ve finally found an upgrade for it. The eeePC is the same format but with modern hardware. The ‘spirit’ of my Libretto has migrated to the eeePC, and the eeePC has become my primary laptop.

So the Powerbook is redundant, unneeded, and unused. I’ve made arrangements to sell it to someone who will undoubtedly treat it very well. However, in preparation for sale, it had to be wiped and boxed.

This was the first time in perhaps 10 years that I’ve retired a line. Every other time I’ve wiped and boxed hardware, it was because the ‘essense’ was already in a newer, better system — it had already reincarnated — and what was left was just the shell.

By now you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking I’m a nutcase. Maybe. We’re all entitled to our own opinions and emotions. But as I sat there with the system disk in there, finger on the wipe button, I did feel a strong sense of sadness. This was not just my Powerbook, it was all my Mac laptops dating back to 2000, and all the experiences I’d had with it. All the work I had done to customize it, all the work I had done using it. Eight years of experience.

I did eventually hit the button, and continued to feel uncomfortable as the drive was wiped and a fresh OS installed. When it was over, what was left was just a computer. A laptop. But not my computer, not my laptop. End of the line.

Closing the Box
Closing the Box, Ending the Line