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January 16th, 2009:

The New Economics of Cool

There was a very funny article by Daniel Akst in the Wall Street Journal this morning, about a very stylish New Yorker who converted his entire family to Macs years ago because, well, they were cool. This is easy to do when you have a good job and you know your co-op will continue to appreciate at the rate of 30% a year forever. However, now that Big Media is reminding us every day that we are being crushed under the worst Depression in world history, even the cool people are buying Windows machines because the cost of cool may far outweigh its benefits.

(By the way, although Dan looks cool–click to his Web site–he is actually a highly insightful writer who could make his reputation by puncturing cool culture as his writer’s mission. Read his stuff. I think he should start by buying a suit and getting a professional publicity photo taken. At least he hasn’t shaved his head, which the majority of cool guys do, especially once they start to go bald.)

There’s nothing wrong with Macs apart from the fact that they cost too much. I have some technical quibbles about the UI–using a one-button mouse was a hideous mistake, founded in Jobs’ condescending view that All Users Are Idiots–but it’s a very solid, well-engineered box, basically a Unix system that has been beaten about the head until it learned some manners. But that’s not why people buy them, and once The New Austerity goes mainstream, either their prices will come down or they will become the next NeXT.

MAKE Magazine regularly runs articles about making furniture out of old cardboard boxes. Odd, though, that I rarely hear anybody say that used computers work just as well as new computers–better, actually, when the new runs Vista and the old runs XP.

And cheap. You want cheap? On eBay right now as I write this, there’s a used 2.8 GHz Dell SX270 with 1 GB of RAM, a keyboard, and a mouse. Starting bid is $89.95, the auction expires in an hour, and there are no bids. I can tell you from personal experience that this is a very good machine, because I have one almost exactly like it in our condo in Des Plaines, and I very happily lay out books on it and process graphics. Add an SX270 Windows install CD (which may cost you $30) and a monitor (which you may already have) and for under $200 you have a machine that is built like a tank and will do anything you need to do. The install CD is BIOS-locked to the model (not the individual machine) and you don’t have to activate it. The only thing it won’t do is be cool.

Interestingly, there are pockets of coolness in the free software world, as I’ve discovered as I’ve kicked into high gear revising my assembly language book to be all-Linux. The cool index of Karsten “Rasterman” Heitzler’s Enlightenment desktop manager is off the charts, and Raster’s been working on it for 12 years now. He himself is one of the coolest geeks I’ve ever met, and he does it without any condescension or venom. (I’ve spoken with him in person on several occasions, though it’s been awhile.) How well it works I won’t know until I try it, but that’s a separate issue. The cool is there. Few people know about it because cool is a proxy for status, and status is a proxy for money. If it doesn’t cost money, and if just anybody can get it, then in our culture it’s almost by definition not cool.

This may change. It may change in weird ways, too. It’s currently cool to live in Manhattan, but once companies move most New York jobs to Iowa, Iowa may have to become cooler. Pockets of uncool places are sometimes cool, like Boulder and Austin, but such cool places are so expensive that they may eventually share New York’s fate. You can buy a three-bedroom bungalow outside of Ogallala, Nebraska for 10% of what a similar house would cost in Santa Cruz, and you’d be closer to the beach than much of Santa Cruz. (It’s a way better beach, too.)

Jobs will eventually follow affordable housing. Are you too cool to live in Nebraska? Heh. We’ll see.