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This is the Modem World: whatchoo got under the hood?


Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I just bought a new car. I chose an automatic transmission. I know, I know. In order to really appreciate driving, one must have three pedals and be in complete control of his torque curve.

But I do love driving and can hold my own in a conversation about horsepower, suspensions and cold-air intakes. As for working on cars, I could change my oil, but nothing more. In my teens, I drove a manual 1980 VW Rabbit that I took from Orange County to LA and back again almost every weekend. I loved the car, but after years of stop-and-go, my clutch leg grew giant-sized, like a crab. I promised myself to never sit in traffic in a manual transmission again.

So now I have a nice new car with an automatic transmission. The funny thing, though, is that technology has made automatics more efficient and faster than manuals. Tiptronics with paddle shifters are now the stuff of supercars; computers dial in peak shift points with manual overrides to give control back to the driver.

My car is complex and there is little chance that I will ever work on it myself. If I want to tweak performance, I'll have its ECU computer flashed to deliver more horsepower. My car is a closed gadget -- there's nothing of use to me under the hood. Heck, it doesn't even have a dipstick -- the digital dash displays oil levels.

But it drives like a dream.

The other day, a friend was romancing about the control he has over his home-built computer: He overclocks, swaps GPUs, installs cooling units and, like a car enthusiast, manually tweaks his machine to his specs. It's a beautiful thing. His computer has a clutch.

To me, that's a lot of work. I want to browse the web, play some games, watch some videos, maybe get some work done and do whatever it is I want to do with my gadgets. I'm okay with cases that don't open as long as the device runs well.

Some are still tinkerers, their heads hovering over motherboards on Saturday afternoons in order to squeeze out more performance while the rest of us are out there just speeding along.

But the writing is on the wall, my solder-wielding friends: digital grease monkeys are being marginalized just like car junkies have been. First, we lost external drives. Back in the day, we daisy-chained floppies on serial ports and stacked SCSI hard drives. Then we lost floppy drives when hard drive prices dropped and CD-ROM drives became standard as methods of input. Now the optical drive is gasping its final breath as download speeds make physical media redundant. We can't even access the batteries in many of the major laptops and smartphones on the market.

Some of us are chronic clutch-riders and tweakers while the rest of us are happy to worry about less. In 20 years, will there be some dark underground crawling with nerds who still build their own computers, who overclock machines from the 2000s and call them classics like some delicious scene from a William Gibson novel?

Imagine a day in 2034 when a future one of us, hanging out in the back room of a battery recycling center, says, "Just picked up a 2012 Acer Aspire. Needs a new USB controller but runs Guild Wars like a dream."

Let's hope so. That would be cool.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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