Project Concept Formalisation

A project log for The People's Permacomputer

A computer designed to survive a societal collapse.

blair-vidakovichBlair Vidakovich 03/02/2024 at 02:160 Comments


"The Committee"

Yes you can join the committee.

What is a permacomputer?

A permacomputer is a computer which attempts to embody the virtues of permacomputing.

Foundationally, permacomputing itself is set of community practices and traditions which shares a set of social and ecological values inspired by the 70s land management and settlement design of permaculture.

What is the point of this project?

The people's permacomputer project is an attempt to physically realise a permacomputer.

This will involve not just the production of an actual model permacomputer, but also the development of a list of suggested social and cultural practices around computing that will, it is hoped, assist in the continued human practice of electronic computing.

There are many different dialectical approaches to making an introduction to the people's permacomputer. One thought experiment that has proved especially popular and easy to grasp sums up the mindset behind which we are functioning:

Industrial society has collapsed. All semiconductor fabrication has ceased, society-wide electrification is no longer guaranteed. There is no longer any internet. Computing as it was once known in the early 21st century is impossible. You need a computer for a task. What do you do?

This project is a humble response to the challenge posed by the above problem.

Adventures in the traditions of computation

We seem to take it for granted that a computer in everyone's hand just is democratic computing. Indeed, the ubiquity of contemporary computation has been confused for 'democracy'.

As quickly as we marched towards computing for the masses, we marched just as swiftly away.


There do today however still exist flourishing movements which are worthy of mention--although not exclusive in this honour, much of the GNU movement is to be credited with any sanity being preserved in present-day mass computation.

Hobbyist computing

The hobbyist computer movement of the 1970s was rich in ideas, and courageous--sometimes breathtaking--in its efforts to allow the lay person to realise their access to an electronic computer.

Need we speak of the heterogeneous array of kit computers and their attendant clubs and magazines? Some of mention are entire influential computing platforms in their own right:

From minicomputers to microcomputers

One may even be able to recount the history of computing before its entry into the mass consciousness. Computer architectures from (now defunct) firms like DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) still carry enormous significance today.

Much of DEC's fascinating and progressive work culture is imprinted on the fruits of their labour. Two models of computer from DEC in particular, the PDP-8 and the PDP-11, are steeped in the corporation's ethos: "do the right thing".

Neither of these machines were of much relevance outside the academy and industry, but they represent huge strides forward in human history for the virtues that the people's computer committee see as necessary for permacomputing.

In particular, the full plans and maintenance manuals for each token computer were accessible alongside each physical device:

When was the last time the entire structure of a modern smartphone was exposed and made accessible to the user? Indeed, the devices we take for granted today are deliberately obfuscated for the purpose of unchecked economic profit.

Mutual exclusion

There are many influential projects which attempt to address the same set of values driving the people's permacomputer project. Some worthy of note can be listed in no particular order:

All of these projects are concerned with some subset of the principles the permacomputer project holds dear. Collapse OS is software that aims to be system agnostic, and assumes the previous acquisition of some supported hardware.

The uxn ecosystem is rich and continues to flourish. However, while this project shares much with our own concerns for sustainability and the long-term persistence of electronic computing, we diverge from uxn on one fundamental point: we aim to physically provide the community with complete systems that are easily turned on and interrogated by the lay computer user.

That is not to say uxn does not also shine in such areas, but uxn is (very consciously) an emulator. The people's computer project aims to quite literally place completed general purpose computers into people's possession.

While one horn of the dilemma may be expressed as "software without dedicated hardware", the reverse can be said to be true of the plethora of projects similar to the RC2014, and Ben Eater's breadboard 6502 project. In this case, it is "hardware without dedicated software".

These two aspects of a general purpose computer--its own unique physical construction, and its capacity to perform abstraction through judicious programming--are usually siloed off from one-another intellectually.

In this way, the people's permacomputer is an attempt to blend, and thoroughly combine two previously mutually exclusive set of practices which, even if they were only able to survive the collapse in part, are invaluable when applied correctly.

Permacomputing and heterogeneity

Our research was long and laborious. When the results of our information gathering started to become clearer, we discovered that it was not appropriate to offer up one model of permacomputer, but several.

  1. Mike Bauer's DREAM 6800.
  2. The DREAM's 'older brother': a more powerful permacomputer able to deal with more complex human demands.
  3. Permacomputers constructed from salvage, such as e-waste. One such proof of concept we imagine demonstrating is the collection and repurposing of ESP32C3 microcontrollers from inside 'smart lighting'.
  4. Permacomputers derived from popular off-the-shelf contemporary microcontroller kits, like the Arduino Uno or Mega.

Each of these four approaches manages to present a view of the fundamentals of computing from a different perspective. It seems to us, at least, that there are various competing demands that must be balanced delicately in order to run a community organisation. There is no 'one size fits all'.

A mnemonic can be derived from the four computer models we humbly offer up to solve your computing woes: