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Keegan McNamara, 25, the founder of Mythic Computer Co., poses for a portrait in his shop in Ojai, California. (Philip Cheung for The Free Press)

A Computer of One’s Own

Most of the tech gifted this holiday will end up in a landfill. But Keegan McNamara makes laptops you can pass on to your grandchildren.

New computers all seem to look like each other. They’re ubiquitously lighter, sleeker, and more capable than their clunky forefathers, with superfast software, hyperclear displays, and ever more powerful fans to cool the circuit boards we ride all day. 

But Keegan McNamara wanted just two things in a personal computer. “To be beautiful and serene,” he says.

The 25-year-old software engineer believes most commercial laptops offer neither. “There’s nothing serene about them,” he says. “The experience is awful. You’re getting bombarded with notifications, along with all the ills and distractions of social media. It stops being a tool.”

As for beauty, it’s nowhere to be found, McNamara says, unless you find beauty in computers that are mass-produced and indistinguishable. “Computers should be heirlooms,” McNamara says. “They should be something that you pass down to your kids. They should be something that you encode a family history on, and not just something you trade in for the newest model in a few years.”

But that type of computer doesn’t exist. So in the summer of 2022, McNamara decided to build one himself.

He called it “The Mythic,” a name that made it sound like a sword forged in iron and elf magic from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. And the reality isn’t that far off. McNamara built it by hand, carving the base out of solid maple and walnut wood, with a swooping backside that’s reminiscent of a ski slope. It has an Italian leather wrist rest and a hodgepodge of found parts and electronics that look like something from a 1950s sci-fi movie.

Keegan McNamara’s Mythic I computer in his shop in Ojai. (Philip Cheung for The Free Press)

It runs on an operating system called NixOS and has only what he needs. It’s a tool for McNamara to write letters, keep a daily journal, even work on code. It can’t go online, or edit a video, or create a PowerPoint demonstration. It offers both the fewest number of distractions and the highest level of personal aesthetics.

McNamara isn’t some lone nut doing the computer whiz equivalent of going off the grid. He is part of a community of fledgling tech Noahs rebelling against the idea that computers should be one-size-fits-all and utterly disposable.

These self-taught DIY enthusiasts include Superman actor Henry Cavill, who cobbled together his own gaming PC from scratch, and Nigerian-based Fopefoluwa Opeola-Davies, who builds custom PCs for students and churches. More than 6.6 million fledgling tech heads with dreams of building their own personalized laptops subscribe to the subreddit r/buildapc.

They represent one facet of the larger “right to repair” movement whose roots can be traced back 100 years to the automobile industry and the birth of “planned obsolescence,” where companies put out products designed to go out of date. 

Today, the movement includes not only cars but mechanical equipment and mass amounts of tech. It’s partly propelled by environmental concerns. The vast majority of computers don’t survive longer than three to five years. But unlike with old cars, people don’t usually tinker under the hoods of their devices to get them running again. They throw them out and buy the newest version. Americans dispose of more than 110,000 laptop computers every day, according to Nathan Proctor, senior director of the Campaign for the Right to Repair.

“Only about 15 to 25 percent of electronic waste is recycled,” Proctor says. “And a majority of what goes to the recyclers are landfilled.”

The problem gets even worse over the holidays. A new study from Finder.com estimates that Americans will spend a staggering $9.1 billion on unwanted gifts this holiday season, up from $8.3 billion in 2022. And 20 percent of those gifts destined for the recycle bin are tech products. 

That’s starting to change, thanks in part to new legislation. “Right to repair” laws passed this year in California and Minnesota (and late last year in New York) now require manufacturers to supply service parts and diagnostic tools for customers who want to get their tech fixed, rather than upgrade to the latest version.

But, as McNamara shows, the movement isn’t just about recycling and fixing old things—it’s also about turning them into beautiful new objects. John Bumstead, who runs a repair shop for old MacBooks called RDKL, Inc. (short for “Roadkill”) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has found a side project photographing broken LCD screens and selling them as “glitch art.”

“I want to demonstrate that something ‘obsolete’ or ‘broken’ is not actually useless,” he says. “We assume it’s useless simply due to our failure of imagination. But when you shift the purpose, it’s good as new again.”

McNamara says he doesn’t see his computers as art, but he is aligned with the right to repair movement. “I love everything about it,” he says. “I love this philosophy of making an object your own. Living in a purely utilitarian, functional-only world is extremely dry and inhuman. I like beautiful, well-made things. Well, I have two hands and a brain, right?”

A bookshelf in Keegan McNamara’s shop in Ojai. (Philip Cheung for The Free Press)

Everything changed for McNamara during the summer of 2022, on a vacation to New York City with his girlfriend, tech writer Anna-Sofia Lesiv. They visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent most of an afternoon at the Arms and Armor exhibit, which houses hundreds of historical weapons. He was especially taken with the collection’s ornate guns made for nobility, like Catherine the Great’s pistols and King of France Louis XIII’s flintlock gun.

“It was kind of a light bulb moment for me,” he says. “These people thought it was worthwhile to turn these relatively utilitarian objects, things that were basically just tools, and transform them into something beautiful. I tried to think, do we have anything like that in modern times?”

The idea consumed him for weeks, and as McNamara went about his life—designing software for a fundraising technology start-up in Los Angeles, where he lived with his girlfriend—he began daydreaming about what he could build that was as magnificent and unique as those ancient firearms.

He decided on a computer. “Because of my day job, it wasn’t entirely a foreign world for me,” McNamara says. “I got a decent STEM degree”—he graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a BA in math in 2019—“and after that, I designed websites and did a few internships at Amazon. So I was pretty sure I could piece together the electronics side of it. And because of my upbringing, building something from nothing wasn’t completely out of my element.”

Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, he watched his dad, who he calls a “Midwestern garage woodworker,” build furniture and other objects out of wood. He was also influenced by a close friend of his grandfather, a professional luthier who made guitars by hand. 

“I would hang out in his shop, just watching him work,” McNamara remembers. “His guitars were like some fancy piece of jewelry, but also entirely playable.” McNamara went on to take a guitar-building class in college, and while he didn’t have the woodworking skills for a career in lutherie, it left a lasting impression on him. “You think about form and function differently when you’re trying to create a shape out of wood.”

When he decided to make a computer, his first step wasn’t sourcing electronics or computer parts. Instead, he went on Amazon and bought twenty pounds of modeling clay.

“I’d lay it all out on the shipping box and just started looking for a shape,” he says. “You realize there’s a universe of possibilities.”

Once he settled on a form he liked, his next stop was House of Hardwood, a lumberyard in West Los Angeles, where he loaded his car with walnut and maple timber. He found the electronics he needed from stores around L.A. such as McMaster-Carr and DigiKey, “and a bit of internet scavenging,” he says. What he didn’t know how to build, whether it involved wood or a circuit board, he taught himself by watching YouTube videos.

“I initially thought it’d just be a side project,” says McNamara. But the Mythic soon went from being a hobby to “becoming my entire life, much to the dismay of my girlfriend,” he laughs.

A chalkboard and tools in Keegan McNamara’s shop in Ojai. (Philip Cheung for The Free Press)

He worked from a spare bedroom, using only hand tools like a Japanese hand saw and a mallet and chisel. On the wall behind his workspace, he taped a piece of paper with a favorite quote by the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras: “It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.” 

McNamara finished the Mythic in late March 2023. When he first turned it on and watched his creation come rumbling to life, it was a surreal moment for him. “It was almost like an inner peace,” he says. “I know that’s kind of a hippie term, but that’s what it felt like. I’d been living with this thing in my head for so long, and now here it was, out in the physical world.”

He shared photos of it online, on social media, and in a few Reddit groups, and thought that’d be the end of it. “But then I got a DM from a former acquaintance of mine, asking if I could build something similar for him,” says McNamara. That acquaintance was Max Novendstern, co-founder of the crypto start-up Worldcoin, who’d tweeted earlier that month that he yearned for a computer stripped “of their dopamine faucets,” left with only “their crystal balls.”

The money Novendstern offered was good, too good for McNamara to pass up. Though he won’t reveal the exact figure, it was enough that by early April, he decided to leave his engineering job to focus on computer building full-time. 

“All of a sudden, I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is my next career move,’ ” he says.

Keegan McNamara at his desk in his shop in Ojai. (Philip Cheung for The Free Press)

When Apple released its first iMac 25 years ago—the only computer to feature a colorful, translucent plastic casing—taking aesthetic risks was more important than easy profits. “Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service,” Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs said in an interview at the time.

A quarter century later, Apple is no longer a scrappy young company where artistic ideals come first. Now worth $3 trillion, it’s a media juggernaut whose reputation for innovation and customer satisfaction is long behind it. Which is why it was such a surprise when the company came out in support of a right to repair bill in its home state of California. 

Despite the fact that 84 percent of Americans think manufacturers should be required to share information and parts to independent repairers or product owners, according to a 2022 Consumer Reports survey, Apple had long opposed the measure, if only to protect their bottom line. But with Apple’s surprising about-face on the issue (at least in California), the bill was signed into law in October. 

Bumstead, who refurbishes MacBooks in Minnesota, calls it a “strategic chess move” on Apple’s part. “If they appear to be ‘giving in,’ it’s because they’re getting something they want,” he says. 

Every part in an Apple machine has its own serial number, making it impossible to replace with any other outside part, Bumstead explains. Apple alone can supply replacement parts, giving them “an absolute monopoly” on the repair market.

If Apple is allowed to continue with parts pairing, Bumstead says, “We have lost, and nothing else matters.”

The incentives for controlling the right to repair movement are pretty clear for tech companies, says Proctor, senior campaign director for the Right to Repair. “If you control repair, it allows you to drive the replacement cycle and price gouge for repairs. Apple makes $9 billion per year on AppleCare. The fact that they restrict repair so there is reduced competition surely has an impact on that amount.” 

Meanwhile, Apple keeps finding ways to make their computers disposable. Security locks, meant to keep your information safe if a laptop is stolen, can also make sure the device can never be given a second life. “Apple will not unlock these for recyclers, so they are destroyed,” says Bumstead. “Inventory that once was sold off to refurbishers for reuse now simply ceases to exist.”

Keegan McNamara in front of his shop in Ojai. (Philip Cheung for The Free Press)

McNamara is currently working on his fourth computer, the Mythic IV. He is now the president (and so far, only employee) of Mythic Computer, and takes on only one customer at a time. Other than his website, he doesn’t advertise.

McNamara won’t reveal exactly what his computers cost, saying only that it’s typically “in the tens of thousands.” On his website, he claims “each Mythic Computer takes months to create, and is priced accordingly.”

He insists he’s not being cagey. “I learned a lot from luthiers, and that includes how they decide on commissions,” he says. The process begins with a long conversation, not just about what a client wants in a computer but more philosophical questions. “What types of wood do you enjoy?” McNamara might ask. Or, “Are there any forms that you think are really beautiful, even outside personal computers, that you’d like to be echoed in this?”

It can take several sessions before he gets a clear picture of what a customer wants, and he can even ballpark what it will cost. “How many different components does it need to have?” McNamara asks. “How much will it deviate from what I’ve done before? How much new work am I gonna have to do in terms of design and construction?”

Each computer is different—the Mythic II, which he finished for a crypto investor in late July, boasts features like thermal printing, conversational AI, a PDF/ebook reader. . . and that’s about it. It has a similar shape to the Mythic I, but is smaller than the original, with different leather colors and internal tech. 

McNamara finished the third one “a little while ago” for a customer he won’t name, and the fourth is for “a guy who’s been around since the early computer days and has a lot of nostalgia for the early forms.” Clearly his customers—people who can afford a computer assembled like an antique clock, built over several months, to their exact specifications—value their privacy.

Whatever he charges, McNamara is earning enough that he’s moved from a spare bedroom into an actual studio. He and his girlfriend recently moved to a home in Ojai, a small city 80 miles northwest of L.A., in the mountains of California’s Ventura County. “I was able to rent an old cabin on somebody’s property where I do all my computer work,” he says. “It makes my girlfriend happy because there aren’t loud noises emanating from our house at strange times.”

He’s also upgraded his tools to include a band saw, with an electrical steel blade that cuts easily through just about anything. “It’s saved me a significant amount of time,” McNamara says. “The vast majority of my work is still done with hand tools, but having a power tool helps with some of the load.”

Making computers is his business now, but he still talks about it like it’s a philosophy, a grand experiment to see how much he can pull off before somebody tells him to give it up and find a real job.

“Most of the objects that we make and see and live with every day are not very imaginative,” he says. “Once you look at your surroundings through that lens, you start to think, ‘This could be better. It could have a better shape, or more ornamentation.’ You can do that to literally anything around you. It’s just a way of making the world a little more interesting.”

Read Eric Spitznagel’s last Free Press article, Twitter Is Forever.

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