He even saved the boxes

| Nov. 19, 2008

I’d written before about the man who died and left his wife with a garage full of boxes of Mac junk he had collected over the years. I like collecting this old, hard-to-find memorabilia, and found myself the owner of three more boxes of old Mac parts my friends had dropped off, after helping the departed’s wife clear his junk out of their house (evidently she wasn’t as sentimental). I think it’s a cute hobby, getting hardware and software twenty years past its prime humming again, even trying to get it to work with modern computers, like waking up a cryogenically frozen time traveler to the distant and bewildering future after the year 2001.

But there’s a point where all this collecting becomes pathological, and I felt a little sad digging through the deceased’s box of various manuals and peripherals. Well, not the peripherals themselves; they were long gone — I was looking at just their boxes. A box of boxes. Each one neatly preserved, flattened in a display of efficiency and economy of space, oblivious to the sad fact that these things weren’t worth keeping in the first place. What would drive a person to save just the boxes? I thought, fighting back the awareness of the various LEGO boxes squirreled away in the nooks of my apartment.

It seemed to me an inability to separate priceless from worthless; should one ever need to know the uplink speed, the version number, or how to reset some archaic device’s password, that data would be neatly shelved away, on the off-chance that scrap of cardboard would one day become invaluable.

Rather than learn what information was important about each device, and in the process separate the signal from the noise, the pack rat simply files it all away: dictated, not read. I believe this is the behavior of a person who prefers to catalog their experiences, rather than allow the ephemera of life to pass through them, and in that way they’re really cataloging their life rather than experiencing it.

Getting these boxes made me take a long look at myself, and raised some difficult questions. Questions like why do I have five modems when I don’t have a phone line? How many SE/30s is enough? And more importantly: how do I get rid of this stuff? And which of these things should I keep?

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