Photo: Thomas HaydenCross-posted from Last Word on Nothing.
Black Friday is behind us, and Cyber Monday too. But those are just start dates: The pressure to buy, buy, buy isn’t going to let up for another month at least. And that has me thinking about one of my favorite gadgets — a miraculous little piece of technology that lets me carry thousands of songs with me wherever I go. Where would I be without my Coby?
That’s right, my Coby. A cheap plastic mp3 player — basically a $19.99 flash drive with an earphone jack, a pixilated little screen, and controls that look a lot like the original iPod scroll wheel, without actually scrolling or being a wheel. It’s a piece of crap, really. And I love it.
Let me be clear: I’ve got nothing against fancy technology. I actually did have an iPod once, a sleek 30-gig number with a brilliant video screen and space for nearly half of my comically large music collection. I cringed with horror every time I dropped the thing, and I felt the $400 hole in my wallet long after it went missing, just a few months after I bought it.
I don’t miss it now, though. The iPod’s much-lauded shuffle function was apparently designed to highlight the far corners and aesthetic lapses of my song library. Ironic curios such as Hasselhoff, Shatner, and the suppressed first Alanis Morissette CD recurred frequently enough to constitute harassment. Having a dinner party? iTunes selected powwow drumming. Looking for a jolt of energy in the morning? Say hello to mopey Canadian whinge-rock from 20 years ago.
My portable audio technology needs, I realized, are simple. A few hundred well-chosen — by me, dammit — songs and a half-dozen episodes of the WTF podcast and I’m good to go. My trusty Coby does all that, with an FM radio tuner included. (I do wish it had AM too — the crap technology of the air — but why gripe?) Most important, it’s worth next to nothing so I’m virtually assured never to lose it — unlike apparently every iPhone prototype ever — and I don’t mind at all when my toddler flings it across the room.
And because the next Coby is sure to be just as mediocre, I’ll never need to upgrade. I’ve stepped off the escalators of feature creep and planned obsolescence, and all the expense and toxic e-waste that come with them. Crap technology, it turns out, is green technology.
My love of technological mediocrity goes back at least to 1980. My birthday present that year was a new, 12-speed Roadace 404 bike. Oh sure, my friends on their Peugeots and Raleighs mocked, but the Roadace has outlasted them all. I’m not sure I ever saw another bike of its (off-) brand on the road, but it saw me through more than a decade of heavy use, and my sister still rides it today. Me, I ride a 1995 mountain bike now — practically new, I know, but blissfully free of shock absorbers and disk brakes.
I’ve experimented with a variety of advanced travel mugs to tote a dose of morning coffee on my bike-train-bike commute. They were beautifully designed, and capable of keeping the contents plenty hot enough to scald each time their complicated drinking lids dripped slowly into my lap or dumped wholesale into my backpack. I’ve given up, reverting to an old pasta sauce jar with a fail-proof lid and the decency to let the coffee cool enough to be drinkable by the time I’m ready for it.
Cell phones present the greatest challenge for the dedicated non-technologist. After losing three or four earlier models, I’ve settled on a not-smart-at-all Samsung that makes and receives phone calls (I don’t pick up) and has a non-virtual qwerty keyboard that is forgiving of my sausage-fingered texting. The devilish thing apparently also has the power to connect to the internet, but I refused to walk out of the store until that feature was safely shut down. Here’s what’s smart about my humble Samsung: I spend approximately zero hours a day fumbling around with silly games, or trying to enjoy the latest from longreads.com on a screen the size of a child’s tongue.
Still, it can be hard to tell the difference between “crap” technology — functional stuff with no cachet — and the truly “crappy.” No one wants the latter, and there’s nothing green about using something once and tossing it because it doesn’t work. If it’s new, you can usually find the crap technology sweet spot at about the second or third lowest price in any list. In online ratings, look for four stars out of five: That’s the enthusiasts’ 5, minus the angry 1s of people who wanted Apple for Christmas and got Coby instead. If you’re buying used — and really, why wouldn’t you? — you want it old enough to be a little beaten up, but still working fine. Thank the first owner for field-testing your new-to-you gear when you pay a fraction of the list price.
If you still can’t figure out whether you’re about to strike a blow for crap, or get suckered in by the merely crappy, don’t worry. I have a crack team of super-smart Stanford students who are standing by, waiting to dig in and find out for you. We call it SAGE: Sound Advice for a Green Earth. You can read through scores of answers in our archive, or ask your own questions here. And yes, we’re big fans of Umbra, too.
Does second-rate technology have a future? It’s not for me to say. But my son, at 18 months, seems to think so. His own favorite piece of technology is a little crappy, too. It’s a second-hand wooden garbage truck, hand assembled by its previous owner and re-glued any number of times by me, and he loves the thing like the rest of us are supposed to love the latest iPhone. I don’t know yet what he’ll be getting for Christmas, but I’ve got plenty of time to figure that out. Craigslist, after all, is always open.