I miss the 90s computer aesthetics

Nostalgia turns ugly into beautiful.

When I was five years old, in the early nineties, my parents bought our first computer. It was really expensive. In fact, my parents had saved money for some time to amass a sum of money equal to about 3000 of today’s American dollars. This was a lot for a middle class family in the middle of a bad recession. My parents asked my brother and me, whether we wanted to go on a holiday somewhere warm or buy a computer. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation. Our first computer was a 386 PC, put together in some small computer shop from parts picked out by a tech-savvy family friend. It ran DOS and said family friend provided us with (pirated) copies of a lot of different games, which my brother and I would play ad nauseum. This was the first in a long line of computer tech in our household.

From early on, probably when we started shopping around for a second computer when I was in elementary school, I noticed something. All PCs pretty much looked the same. I was always interested in aesthetics and I would’ve wanted a cooler looking computer, but the only ones that were even painted black were from manufacturers that would almost certainly seize to exist before the warranty ran out. The only realistic choice was to buy what I would later call a “shit-gray” computer.

I didn’t call it shit-gray because it was the color of shit. It wasn’t. I called it that because it was gray and it was a shit color. Nothing has ever looked good in shit-gray. It’s that weird light gray color that gets a slight yellow tint over time, probably due to oxidization or whatever. For some inexplicable reason, pretty much all computer tech was that same color. The keyboards, the mice, the speakers and so on. That lasted roughly from the mid-80s to the late 90s. More than a decade. Design was minimal. I don’t mean the design style was minimal, I mean there was very little of it.

However, there was always a strange beauty in that ugliness. It was all function over form. Computers looked like, well, computers. The technological limitations of the time meant that no matter what, PCs would be big and bulky boxes with big grilles for air circulation. They needed a certain number of standard slots for hard drives and disk drives. The displays were big and bulky things with thick bulging glass screens. Keyboards were mechanical and mice had rolling balls underneath. But they worked. Parts were replaceable and you could update your computer yourself with nothing more than a Phillips head and a little know-how.

Pretty and boring.

Today’s computers are shiny, sleek, slim devices with ultra high-resolution touch screens and user-friendly, intuitive interfaces that let you stream Project Runway with ease and convenience. That’s all well and good for a casual user, but something is missing. The great, big, romantic, exciting thing about 90s computing was potential. The Internet was new and in its infancy. Just to use a computer to play some games, send an email or browse the web required some technological savvy. Everything from the casing to the user interface was born from necessity. It was all decidedly — for lack of a better word — computery.

I still love the aesthetics of 90s computers. I love shit-gray metal boxes. I love leaning in, looking at a screen up close and seeing the red, green and blue that makes up all the 256 or 16.7 million colors. I love being able to see individual pixels and the shit-gray user interfaces of Windows versions from 3.1 to 2000. I love the blinking cursor after the C:\> in DOS. I love the way the picture condensed into a thin line before disappearing when you powered down your display. I love the sound it makes too, like a laser gun from a sci-fi movie. I love all the sounds! Especially that crackling noise from the hard drive that’s like the pitter-patter of mouse feet inside drywall. That’s how you knew it was doing something! That and the little blinking LED light next to the hard drive symbol (that looked like a trash can) on the side of your computer.

Things were the way they were because they had to be that way. The technological capabilities were limited, but the possibilities were endless. Nobody knew where we were going, but we were gonna get there fast. Every computer magazine and movie tried to envision what computer systems of the future would look like, or to visualize the inner workings of cyberspace. Those visualizations are now endearingly outdated and naive. It’s all very… cute.

From the movie Hackers (1995), still one of my all-time favorite movies.

Sometimes nostalgia can be horrible. Remembering things — or people — you lost, reflecting upon time you can never get back or perhaps looking back to a simpler time with less worries and responsibilities. But the sights and sounds of the computers of my childhood always fill me with joy. Technology excited and challenged me, computers taught me logic, reading and English. They were my go-to leisure activity and that hobby would eventually become my job. No movie, TV-show, song or book can match the warm and cuddly feeling I get from seeing a shit-gray metal box and hearing those cooling fans turn on to form that beautiful cacophony of hissing, whirring and whooshing. That’s home.