Bigger, better, faster, more?

In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in what are, by mass consumer standards, ‘low‑spec’ technologies. The Arduino range of microcontrollers, available to buy new in 2020, are (compared to the laptop I wrote this post on) roughly as powerful as the first ZX Spectrum I used in the 1980s. CPU speed is measured in low numbers of megahertz, RAM capacity in an even lower number of kilobytes. Some of the data rates (measured in bits per second) for LoRaWAN, a contemporary but specialised wireless networking technology, are slower than those achieved by the 2400bps modem we used at home to access bulletin boards in the early 1990s.

If the mass market is represented by streaming funny cat videos in 4K on an Ultra HD smartphone using a super-fast home Wi-Fi connection, probably whilst ignoring anyone else in the room, then the Arduino-LoRaWAN combination is a niche offering. It is, of course, a case of ‘horses of courses’ and, for a remote, off-grid Internet of Things deployment, the power consumption and transmission range of a LoRaWAN equipped Arduino beats the smartphone hands-down.

Beyond this, engaging with technologies like the Arduino (not to mention the various models of Raspberry Pi, although they aren’t nearly as ‘low-spec’) and LoRaWAN has made me realise how much of my day‑to‑day computing needs could be met by older, less powerful technology. The kind of computers I can remember using. I have a nearly 20 year old PC in the house for trips down memory lane. It’s a Dell and it’s beige, which tells you how old it is. But I could word process, create slide decks, email, video conference, browse the web (if it wasn’t bloated with JavaScript and video adverts) and even watch cats climb improbably into tiny objects at lower resolutions. I won’t, because connecting a Windows 98 PC to the Internet in 2020 would be reckless, but I could. Given that my computing needs don’t seem to have changed all that dramatically in the past two decades, how much of the modern computing experience is for show? If we strip away the ‘sparkle’ of cutting edge technology, has the key functionality changed all that much? (It clearly isn’t in the interests of hardware and software vendors if consumer needs are met by old products, but I’m not writing about planned obsolescence here.)

What really interests me are solutions that work in technologically constrained and/or degraded situations. In a developed, high-tech environment I have reliable mains electricity, gigahertz of processing power, gigabytes of RAM, terabytes of file storage, a fast Internet connection and access to countless hosted services. But what if I didn’t? What if I couldn’t afford or otherwise access these facilities? What if I had to identify my absolutely essential computing needs? Or what if the power went off and I had to rely, in the long term, on small and/or unpredictable power sources? What if the only data connection was a dial-up modem or a low-capacity wireless link? What if I lived in a restrictive regime and had to sneak data in and out as inconspicuously as possible? In all of these cases less would seem to be more.

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