Now that MindCandy is out the door, I’ve had time to return to some of my more favorite pastimes, like retrocomputing. Perodically the topic of conversation in a retrocomputing forum turns inward as people ask: Why do we collect old computers? Why dedicate space, power, and time to restoring and using slow, impractical machines when better ones exist? I think the question can be expanded to all collectors: Why does anyone collect anything? Why go through the trouble of gathering up material items? Why do we assign personal value to inanimate objects, or derive comfort from them?
I think I can sum it up in three words: Fear of death.
Everybody needs a coping mechanism for dealing with the inevitability of death. Social interaction, religion, family, blind ignorance, sex, drugs, and various causes (environmental, human rights) are the most common, but there are people for whom none of those apply. I believe these people turn to anything that gives them comfort, or used to give them comfort. Ventriloquists collect ventriloquist dummies, maybe because they remind the owner of receiving adoration on stage. Housewives collect porcelain dolls to glorify their memories of youth. Christopher Dennis has an extensive collection of Superman memorabilia because the image of Superman is what keeps him alive. But you don’t have to be down on your luck or unhappy to have a collection; just look at Jay Leno or Steve Martin.
For those who grew up using early computers to better themselves or others, it’s not inconceivable that such objects would give them comfort. I am one of those people, so I have a collection of computers. It is modest by most hard-core retrocomputist standards; I have around 30, and many are duplicates for parts. But I definitely spend otherwise productive time hauling them out, getting them working, running old favorites (or new discoveries) on them, and writing software for them. It reminds me of a time when I was the technological wunderkid, and had control over my environment — you tell a computer to do something, and it actually does it. When I “retrocompute”, I have something pleasant to occupy my thoughts, and I gain a sense of accomplishment and completion.
Some collectors in my hobby look at their crawlspace, storage space, shed, or warehouse and wonder how their collection got so big and how they’ll ever get rid of it. I think the answer is to recognize your collection for what it is: A coping mechanism. It should not have any more value beyond that. Your collection is not a replacement for people. Your collection is not more important than your job, your marriage, or your kids. Once you realize that, you can start letting it go. Maybe only one piece at a time… maybe never all of it completely. But you can let go.