Many of the things I write about detail sustainability and sustainable living. I’d like to take this post to discuss sustainability on a technological level. Previous posts have described my frustration with computers and the next new thing. Clearly, constantly eliminating technology in replace of newer hardware where the old hardware is simply thrown out isn’t sustainable. But, what would an alternative be? Open Source software that works with hardware of many ages is one such option. Open Source software also speaks to a philosophy of shared knowledge, which in many circles is an underlying aspect to sustainability.
I think it’s important that we remind ourselves what sustainability means and what it strives to do. Sustainability is such a household term now-a-days… a double edged sword of recognition. Although it’s fabulous that people are generally more aware of where their food comes from and how we could think about stuff in general, sustainability has a way of being green washed where the meaning is lost. Sustainability has many definitions, but one aspect of sustainability is better living for everyone. If we really want to achieve better living for everyone, sustainability cannot be limited to the housing we have available and the food we eat. It must encroach in every philosophy and all ways of life. Which is why I’d like to briefly discuss sustainability, open source, and computers.
Above everything else, sustainability strives to be lest wasteful and many claim a zero waste society is where our goals should be. So, what does this have to do with computers? Everything. The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard explains where our stuff comes from, how its made, and its clear lack of consideration for the actual production it takes to make the stuff we use. Computers and other technology are a big factor. It’s a common belief that laptops and desktop computers will be obsolete in 3-5 years. Let’s take the career of an average adult, this is isn’t including home computers, where we could multiply by 2 or more to get a more realistic idea of waste. The average adult works from 22 to 65, with a rough 43 good working years at a desk or on a job where a computer is necessary. If the average computer lasts 5 years, that means the average adult is using not less than 8 computers, monitors, keyboards, and mice to get the job done. 8 times the 300 million people in the U.S. alone means a heck of a lot of computer waste (2,400,000,000 – that’s more than 2 billion computers, two billion!). So, how can we cut down on that waste?
System-wide changes are often slow. And, many of us (me included) are enchanted with the next new thing and what it will do for our world and for us. But, what if we could slow the rate of replacement? One step would be using software that doesn’t require what the next new thing offers, but instead embraces past technologies. Many programs require a minimum of 512MB of RAM to operate now-a-days… what would happen if they were scaled back, made more efficient, and worked at a minimum of 60MB? A number we haven’t seen for nearly a decade.
I haven’t heard of a program or system that’s willing to roll back the clock that far, but from my limited Ubuntu experience, the requirements aren’t as steep as the next new MS OS. Additionally, the programs in Open Source Software are often free, especially for the home user. This softens the blow to the economic factor of sustainability. Many of the programs are available on-line, which decreases the need for product CDs, a small step to waste reduction.
The biggest thing to think about when considering technology is its overall impact. Thinking big, thinking with systems in mind is important. What does my action have to do with someone 2 continents away and a 32 hour flight? Will my actions affect and how those with the fewest choices? How does my choice to use Open Source software help to make technology available in a waste-free way? Questions and sustainability and questioning sustainability make it stronger, just like the hacks done to Open Source Software making it better and more accessible world wide.