Reduce, Reuse

Jul 9, 2010

I remember when the first iMac came out in 1998. I was a graduate student then, not a technology journalist, but I still followed tech news enthusiastically. Besides the iconic design of the bondi blue machine, I remember a couple of details stuck out as groundbreaking, both in a good and a bad way. The iMac was the first computer I ever saw that shipped without a floppy drive. I was using a Powerbook back then, and I had a floppy drive in my laptop. But here was a desktop that only used CD-ROM. It didn't even have a CD burner in the first run. I also remember that it was the first Mac to ditch serial ports in favor of USB.

Buyers complained, of course, and an accessory market was born. You could buy USB floppy drives and serial port adapters. Neither worked especially well, but they got the job done. New printers and peripherals came out supporting USB, and it quickly became the standard. The iMac used Ethernet for networking, but soon Apple added Wi-Fi capabilities in the first Airport cards. Most of the technology found on that original iMac is still in use today, though it's gotten faster, and even better options have come around.

Flash forward to 2004. I had been a teacher in Brooklyn for the past three years, teaching High School English. I never saw the computer labs at my school unless I had to substitute for the computer teacher. The lab in my Brooklyn school was full of giant beige boxes, which was fine, because the students were actually learning some basic programming and terminal skills. But in 2004, I started at a tiny charter school in Boston, and the school had a brand new computer lab for students to perform research on the Internet, type papers and use multimedia materials.

That brand new computer lab in 2004 was filled with bondi blue iMacs. A major corporation in Boston, I can't remember which one, had donated all of their used Macs to the school, so the students were using 6 year old machines. At first, I thought it could have been worse. They could be using Windows. I was a Mac fanboy then. I have since come around and I run Windows 7 and Mac OS X now. Little did I know, the situation was much worse than it looked.

Before the iMacs arrived, the students were all using beige boxes, and not well. But they could type papers and launch Internet Explorer just fine. Most of them didn't have a computer at home, and most of the ones who did have a computer did not have a reliable Internet connection. To understand the students better, I'll tell you that they were bright kids with engaged parents, almost 100% of them went on to some form of higher education after High School, and more than 90% of them were eligible for free lunch. Computers were a luxury item, but the desire to learn they had in excess.

We quickly ran into a complicated problem. We required students to type all major papers, just as they would have to do in college. So, where could they store their files? Floppy disks? Those were cheap and easy to find, thanks to the overzealous marketing efforts of America Online. Seriously, AOL provided many students with free disks, until they went to CDs. My students knew how to tape over the write protection on a floppy, but the school only had two or three USB floppy drives, and they broke often. It was a charter school, and the budget was tight, the staff already overworked. The school could not afford to spend $100 on new floppy drives.

Could they e-mail the papers to themselves? Perhaps some of them could, but most of them could not. They had no Internet connection at home. Often, students would save their work on a local hard drive, only to forget which computer they were using. They titled their files poorly and lost them. Other students or administrators erased work that was thought to be junk. The situation was a mess.

At some point, we realized that flash drives were a great answer. Even the cheapest computers they might have at home had USB ports, just like the iMacs. But as shocking as it might seem, even flash drives were prohibitively expensive. The school had fewer than 200 students, but did not have the budget to provide them all with even the smallest, 128MB drives. Eventually, private donors would come through and subsidize the drive, but the students still had to pay a few bucks for them, and if they were lost, the expense was too much for our school's families to afford.

In 2006 I became a tech journalist and started attending trade shows like CES and the CTIA Wireless shows. I couldn't believe what I saw. Many companies were still distributing paper press releases, but most also dolled out flash drives by the fistful. Flash drives would sit unclaimed on chairs. Flash drives in a bowl by the front door, handed out like a shady dentist handing out lollipops. I remember colleagues complaining that companies had only provided 512MB drives, instead of the cherished 2GB drives we all wanted. That 512MB drive would last a student at my old school through their four years of education, if they kept it to papers and simpler text files.

I had to do something, and I tried, but met a brick wall. I wrote to liaisons at CEA and CTIA asking if I could set up a drop box out front for people to donate their drives. I promised complete transparency so they knew I wasn't just reselling them. I never got a response. I tried for two years and never heard back from anyone.

There is a growing problem with technological trash in our environment. There is also a growing disparity between the most connected citizens and the folks who have been completely left behind as technology and communication leaps forward. It's hard to imagine now, but there are still plenty of families who don't have a reliable Internet connection, and it directly impacts their children's ability to learn in school.

To solve the first issue, we need to reduce the waste we produce with our technology. Going paperless is nice, but that doesn't mean we've gone completely digital. I don't need a press release and images on a flash drive. You can e-mail it to me, instead. In fact, that's what I would prefer. I have a drawer full of flash drives, I never throw them away, and I'm waiting to donate them once I have enough to supply an entire school. It won't be long.

We need to reuse our technology, and if we don't reuse it, we need to pass it along to someone who will. I'm not just talking about flash drives. The schools where I worked needed more printers. They needed networking equipment like routers and Wi-Fi hotspots. They needed mice. Can you imagine how hard it is to use an iMac without a mouse? It's not impossible, but it's very hard.

I know the catch phrase is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, but I think recycling should be a last resort. Recycling always produces waste, even at its most efficient. Reducing the garbage we create in the first place, and reusing old equipment, is much more efficient. Find some place that needs your old technology. I worked for schools that were well supported by the Board of Education as well as private donors. There are plenty of schools that aren't so lucky.

One thing we did have at my school was people who could fix computers. Our Vice Principal, who also taught Spanish, History and Judo, could fix an iMac like he was rebuilding an engine block on a '65 Mustang. I recommend that before you throw away your broken machine, or toss the useless accessories and low capacity storage options, work hard to find a place that could use them. I'm sure there are great organizations to distribute this equipment, but simply calling schools, after-school centers and local community organizations would also be a helpful way to get the equipment into appreciative hands.

And if you happen to attend a trade show, don't throw away your flash drives. Find me. Write to me on Twitter or find me in person. I'll take your drives, until CEA and CTIA come around and listen to my requests for a drop box. I have more than a hundred in a drawer at home. In one trade show, I could make sure an entire school never loses their term papers again.

Sorry kids. You're just going to have to find a better excuse.

Must Read Bits & Bytes