The personal technology revolution has produced many tons of electronic waste. New items displace old items, and sometimes we have to get rid of things we’d just as soon keep, simply because they can no longer handle the tasks we need them to handle.
Or can they?
I’ve been playing around with an “obsolete” device recently. It’s a Dell Latitude C610 laptop with a Pentium III processor, only 765 megabytes of memory, a 20-gigabyte hard drive, and no built-in WiFi. Many people would consider this machine close to useless, which is probably why someone recently gave it to me.
It’s working quite well, though, and the secret is an operating system called Xubuntu. Xubuntu is a “lightweight" variant of the Ubuntu Linux operating system that’s designed for older equipment. It’s given this laptop a new life.
The Latitude is working well for the things that I need it to do. With a PCMCIA wireless plug-in card, I’m surfing the ‘net wirelessly using the most recent version of Google Chrome. All Chrome extensions that I’ve tried work, too, so I’m also able, for example, to use Evernote, the superb note-taking and syncing application.
Adobe Flash is working (more than one could say for any iPad) so I can use Flash-enabled websites. True, the videos are not as smooth as I’d like -- one concession to using old hardware -- but I can live with that.
I have Dropbox installed, so all my documents are available to me. I edit the Word files with AbiWord, and I use the Gnumeric application for spreadsheets. These programs are free, as are almost all of the dozens of programs available for Xubuntu and Ubuntu. And the Ubuntu Software Center makes installing them dead simple.
In fact, Xubuntu itself is not only free, but it’s also as easy to install as is Windows or the Mac operating system.
So why are we so eager to label technology like this old Latitude “obsolete” and to dispose of it? I believe the reasons mostly have to do with money, marketing, our own priorities and aptitudes, and what I like to call “the allure of the shiny new object.”
Large for-profit companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Dell need to be always selling something new. Nothing wrong with that in itself; we can choose for ourselves what to buy and what not to buy. But these companies use powerful marketing and advertising campaigns that not only stress the usefulness of the latest model, but also imply that the equipment you’re using now won’t be so useful fairly soon.
Their messaging is powerful, and equally strong counter-messages aren’t as loud.
Our own priorities and aptitudes matter, too. Many people have no interest in learning what may be required to make older tech items continue to work, and some people who may be interested find that their aptitudes lie elsewhere. People are different, and that’s perfectly fine. Although I’m good with technology, I regret that I have little aptitude for cooking. I wish that were different.
Lastly, we can’t underestimate perhaps the strongest motivation to upgrade: the simple allure of the new shiny object.
Shiny new objects are fun. It feels good to get one. They can also divert us from what whatever we may be unhappy about.
But we do have choices. We don’t alway have to ride the “newer and shinier” train. Keeping an older toy, and keeping it working, is sometimes a choice worth considering.