I am currently writing this sentence on the device that you can see in the above picture. It is, as you might have guessed, called the AlphaSmart 3000. It is a keyboard with a small screen. It costs $30 on Amazon and can run for 700 hours on three AA batteries. After I finish typing this article into my AlphaSmart, I will connect it to my computer using an ancient USB cable, press a button in the top right corner that says “SEND,” and watch my words materialize inside of a Google Doc. Owning one has made me less of an unproductive human sloth, which makes me want to celebrate it as if it were my child. I'm still sort of an unproductive human sloth, so I not gonna go sing its praises from the top of a mountain because that would involve climbing one, so instead, I am on this website, telling the world that I think the AlphaSmart 3000 is the cat’s pajamas.
The particular AlphaSmart unit that I own was built in 2003 or so, and even back then it was outdated. Originally created in the early 90s by a pair of Apple engineers, the AlphaSmart quickly became a staple in public schools, because they were a) cheaper than computers but could be used to teach typing skills, and b) could not be destroyed by even the most rambunctious of large children. AlphaSmarts are cheap hunks of plastic with basic keyboards connected to basic screens by basic circuitry, and as a result, they can withstand drops, karate chops, spills, earthquakes, dog bites, or anything else you can throw at it (like, I'm pretty sure I could pelt my AlphaSmart with rocks and still be able to use it). Because of their sole purpose, they have also developed a cult following among people like me, who like to write things but also possess terrible attention spans and love to fall into a sea of Firefox tabs instead of actually writing.
Now, don't get me wrong, the AlphaSmart 3000 is definitely a dumbass keyboard for dumbass dorks. But at least it manages to be dorky without being all ostentatious about it. While there definitely are ridiculous blog posts and forums threads where people talk about how much they love their AlphaSmarts, most of the discussion is strictly limited to how practical these things are, or teasing out teentsy differences between various AlphaSmart models. On the other hand, typewriters — inevitably the thing that the AlphaSmart gets compared to — have a whole subculture devoted them. There are no debates over which vintage brands offer a more aesthetically pleasing experience over others, no exhausting YouTube videos about performing rocket surgery on them. Instead, the AlphaSmart is the alpha of smart, and it is the omega of smart, and that's all there is to it.
Achieving nonspecific “productivity” — in other words, getting things done for the hell of it — is highly questionable, and something that we have interrogated at length. But doing things that you want to do because you derive joy from them is wonderful, and the best pieces of technology help facilitate exactly that. The AlphaSmart 3000 is a relic from an era when technology companies made stuff that was intended to perform one or two specific functions — think Palm Pilots, mp3 players, and GPS systems — rather than creating apps that work on phones and tablets, devices which promise to do anything you could want them to, as well as a whole lot of stuff that you don’t.
The way technology works today encourages multitasking — if you’re already doing something on a device that can do it all, why try to do it all at once? — and if you’re not careful, your brain can begin to spin so many plates at once that they all tumble down and break at your feet. My AlphaSmart 3000 helps break this cycle, offering clarity and focus in a world that profits off pulling our attention in every single direction. Plus, I’m pretty sure that mine has a calculator on it, so if I get super bored I can always remind myself that even when I think writing sucks, it's less sucky than having to do math.