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my childhood tech obsession is beautiful


December 8, 2020

6 min read

"I follow tech like people follow sports," I told an admissions interviewer once in ninth grade. "I know what the best products are, what differentiates them, what each of the companies are up to."

I was a tech nerd as a kid. You know the type — if you've been a young boy recently it's likely you've even embodied this nerdery yourself. My favorite YouTube channel at one point was Dave2D, whom I admired for his comprehensive, stats-based, level-headed laptop reviews, like one might admire a particular sports analyst and honor their predictions. Of course I also watched the obligatory channels: LinusTechTips, MKBHD, Austin Evans, TechnoBuffalo, TLDToday, and a long list of others.

At any given moment, I could tell you what the best laptop on the market was. I could tell you what the best graphics cards, CPUs, even motherboards and computer cases were. Not the best laptop or product for you, or the one that you should buy, just this abstract, competitive sense of good. Again, like one might argue for a sports player or team out of passion rather than meaningful analysis.

Like any tech nerd, I was always thinking about my dream setup. I put together Amazon wish lists with the monitors, keyboards, mice, and speakers I would buy, and pieced together components for custom builds on PCPartPicker. Watching videos from a family ASUS laptop that was physically falling apart by the day (the hinge assembly had cracked) or an iPhone 4S with not a square inch not shattered, I dreamed of having the latest and greatest ultrabook or phone.

Well, eventually these dreams started to come true. Our family had to buy a new laptop at some point, and with my extensive knowledge I made the pick, ending up with a Dell XPS 13 as dazzling as if it came straight off of the CES showfloor. For my first non-hand-me-down phone, I convinced my mom to let me back the Nextbit Robin on Kickstarter. I loved Android, but the phone itself was terrible, with a crummy camera, overheating issues, and unpredictable battery life with random shutdowns. A hit and a miss.

At first, these gains only fueled my tech obsession. I convinced my mom to get a Nexus 6P, and my sister a Nexus 5X. After my Nextbit became unusable within the year, my mom got me an OG Pixel XL, which I traded up for a 2XL the next year (I still use the 2XL; my mom today also has a 2XL and my sister has a 2. My work turned us into a Pixel family haha). I published laptop reviews on my YouTube channel to viewer counts consistently in the tens of thousands. For Christmas one year, I was shocked and elated when my mom ok'd about $1500 of PC parts and peripherals to make my own desktop setup. Another year, I got my hands on an A6500 with a beautiful 35mm f/1.8 prime.

Four years ago I got into my dream school of Andover, a boarding school half an hour north of Boston. (In fact, that's what the interview mentioned at the beginning of this blog post was for). I remember, some time after moving my setup and other belongings over to my new dorm room, sitting in front of my monitor — maybe editing videos, maybe doing schoolwork, or just playing Rocket League — and having a pretty jarring thought: everything that I wished for two, three, four years ago had come true.

I was living on my own, at my dream school, taking dream classes. My childhood best friend was there (though he didn't want to be my best friend anymore). And in front of me was a 4K monitor, a mechanical keyboard, an MX Master, a custom built gaming-ish PC with more power than I could use, and a camera that shot at a higher quality than cinema cameras a decade ago (in only some respects, but you get the point).

I didn't know what to do with this thought. There was the revelation that, wow, wait, my parents are actually rich and super willing to spend money on me. For some reason, the hundred-dollar price differences I obsessed over like sports stats...didn't matter in the scope that my mom operated at, at least not in the same way as to me.

For the next few years, my sports-y outlook on tech didn't really change, but grew stagnant as I didn't know what to do with it. I had reached the pinnacle of my imagined ladder, but there was no prize or championship title.

It's only in the last few months that my outlook on tech products has changed, and I understood why my mom didn't care about the things I did, having her seemingly less-informed approach towards making purchasing decisions.

In retrospect, of course, it's obvious how silly the little-kid kind of tech obsession is. Tech products aren't players in some sport, they're meant to be marketed to and used by real people as just a small part of their real lives. And in the scheme of your life, it doesn't matter if a laptop that's $2000 is only 10% better than a laptop that's $1000, or that an i7 is totally overkill for PowerPoint and you could just close your tabs and everything will be okay. If you're a businessperson making million dollar deals through Word documents, emails, and phone calls, a 10% improvement in the tools you use daily, or not having to worry about too many tabs slowing down a simple but crucial task, is easily worth that $1000 and more.

I've realized this as a software engineer. I work in a shared office space in downtown New York. The guy in the office next to me has a computer that looks like this, beautifully displayed in the glass window to the hallway:

My computer, on the other hand, looks like this:

To a tech nerd, my build might actually be cooler than his. His is a standard, boxy ATX build. Mine is a tiny, painstakingly-built mini-ITX PC that turned my old mATX PC into something I can fit in my backpack (or just a smaller suitcase, as it is). A video I made on this build has 20K views, steadily bringing in more views even two years later.

The thing is, I don't care anymore.

The video I made for the mini-ITX build was almost even accidental — I had recorded a timelapse of the build and wanted to provide some context, for my own documentations' sake. I didn't expect anyone else to care, let alone for it to accumulate thousands of views.

Friends who don't know much about PC building — and even some who do — have mistaken this PC for some sort of heater or other household appliance.

See those two jumper wires in the back? Touching them together is the equivalent of pressing the power button, because the real power button broke and I had to find some way to be able to turn my PC on and off.

Compared to the Threadripper and RTX 2060 in my officemate's build, my PC is a snail. Hell, there are laptops today that are cheaper and more powerful than my desktop, and as light as my laptop with better battery life. Three or four years ago, I would have been entranced by those kind of stats. Today, though, that Threadripper build is...just another build. Good for the guy next door to have it. I bet he doesn't care much for its intricacies, either, just using a conveniently powerful PC to run his construction surveying business.

My shoebox build is beautiful, humble, and still blazing fast for everything I need it for and more. It's not that I don't appreciate its performance and all the care I put into maximizing it, but I appreciate it in new ways. I appreciate that Jekyll builds my blog twice or three times as fast as my laptop. I appreciate that it can run monster Docker containers and power an entire local enterprise SaaS backend for me to develop on. I appreciate that I can load up Zoom or Gmail reliably at any moment rather than waiting the 15 seconds up to several minutes that it takes on my laptop.

My setup is gorgeous — again, everything I dreamed of a few years ago. But it's only that. I've been using that mechanical keyboard, without any backlighting or fanciness, since I got it four years ago. The monitor, too, has been around since the beginning, and the mic is the same model as the mic my dad bought for me when I was in elementary school. My MX Master — the nicest, techiest mouse in existence — I sold to a friend at school, and now I use a $10 gaming mouse my mom bought off of Amazon.

Don't get me wrong, I know that this is a ludicrously nice setup. It came from my upper-middle-class family that was able to drop a couple thousand dollars on things that make my life easier. I'm only now starting to make my own money and purchases.

But there's a sort of stability here. My silly childhood tech obsessiveness is solidly anchored now by maturity, an early arc of my life come to an end, in anticipation of new ones to come. I realize now that it was a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality that overcame me when I walked by that RGB Threadripper build for the umpteenth time, compelling me to jot down this blog post.

There's no unique or profound point to make here, only a story of mine that's run its course and now exists only in memory, whether fading away in my brain or shared out in this blog post. I sometimes hear about the pursuits of younger siblings of friends — some who are impressed by my videos and setup, some who are far deeper in than I ever was — and I'm reminded of my own past.

To me, this naiive, childish, sometimes expensive obsession is beautiful — a rippling embodiment of childhood, growing up, and the passage of time.

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