Heirloom Computing - The 100-Year PC

50 year old computer

Image from Snopes

Yoni Levison over at EcoGeek lobbed one of those sobering environmental questions to Tod Arbogast, Dell’s Director of Sustainable Business, the other day - when is the computer that lasts decades going to be developed? It's a good question; if we're so collectively technologically smart, why can't we develop a piece of (mostly) solid state equipment that lasts a century or more? In itself, it's interesting to imagine what such a device would look like - like the pic, will it have a wheel to steer it by? Yoni's placid probing, and Tod's response follows.Tod’s answer was multi-fold; first, he suggests that we may reach a point where we can fully capture the materials from old computers to build new ones - 100 percent recycling. Essentially this is a market driven argument - commodities will become more valuable, so recycling will dramatically increase, and there will be plenty of resources. Doubtless this is true but it misses a few key points: what happens when these resources are re-purposed to 'higher and better uses' like solar cells, or insuring the food and water supply? Additionally, the problem of lost resources is not accounted for. For example, a lost copper penny down the sewer will be difficult to recover for recycling.

Tod's second argument relates to the perceived fact that computers continue to get faster and more powerful - we actually 'upgrade' not because our existing computer is broken, but because we can do more things with the new one. Ok... I use a nine-year-old laptop daily, so this argument wasn't meaningful for me. Kinda smells like dot.com spirit.

Third, he pointed out that newer computers often consume less energy. True, true, true, but I'm with Levinson in that over 100-years gains in efficiency will not counterbalance the mining of more metals and production of ceramics and plastics. Maybe now, in 2009, yes, but not in a hundred years.

It's clear we need something - cranking out a few billion replacement 'puters every few years isn't the solution. The heirloom computer is necessary - but is it possible? I, for one, would welcome our new heirloom computer overlords. Ecogeek
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