DUCK SOUP: If Everything Old Was New Again

Were you paying attention in Science Class when your teacher explained that traveling very fast makes time slow down? Do you remember the illustration in your textbook featuring identical twins -- one an astronaut headed for Alpha Centauri and the other a silicon chip designer? Twin A returns home fifty years younger than Twin B who by then owns controlling interest in everything. Twin B is insanely jealous of her sibling's youth and beauty and tells Twin A that her IRA and benefits package have been de-funded since she hasn't clocked in for half a century. Nasty business, that.A personal computer buyer goes through that same time warp at the instant the scissor blade parts the packing tape to reveal the styrofoam cocoon of dreams within. Zap! Obsolescence in a box."I'm old," says the new unit as it is lifted from the nest. "I'm slow." In the opening tinkerbell which resounds as the new unit boots, a careful listener can even make out the Wicked Witch's lament. "I'm melting! Melting!"We are long accustomed to the idea that the value of a new car depreciates by a third when it leaves the dealer's lot -- but at least it still burns fuel available at the corner Quick Mart. Yesterday's computer won't even run this morning's software upgrade!By way of explanation, we are told that innovation is galloping so fast that manufacturers can't possibly keep up. This fate is unavoidable: computers obsolesce faster than Yugos, and unlike Yugos have no value as scrap. (What does one call used goods that no longer have any good in them? Bads?)Stop by a second-hand shop to see the techno-orphans in the back corner on the bottom shelf. You'll find monitors and keyboards, hard drives and printers, with dust bunnies breeding between the cables and cords. Many thrift outlets no longer accept retired CPUs, having learned that the market for doorstops and anchors is vanishingly small.And isn't that strange? The outmoded two year old laptop I am writing on now is considerably faster and better equipped for communication than the four antique Apollo computers which sufficed to put human footprints in moon dust. Arguably the crowning techno-achievement of the current era, that lunar round trip was far more complex than word processing and e-mail. Even my convoluted prose can usually be traversed without solving parallel equations in four dimensions.Americans landfill more than 12 million computers each year. That's upwards of five hundred million pounds of stale chips and crashed systems, RAM and ROM and floating points all torpedoed and sunk. Crushed. Kaput. Gonzo.Many states and municipalities now collect an excise tax on "white goods" -- that is, large metal appliances -- which entail considerable expense in disposal. Though the metal shells have some value as scrap, there are motors, plastic parts, wires, insulation, and (particularly in the case of refrigerators and freezers) chemicals which require separate handling. A similar tax on computer purchases might help stanch the gusher of garbage spewing from silicon industries.If such a tax were high enough -- perhaps $500 per CPU would be a good starting point -- it would discourage computer ownership altogether. After all, none of us really needs or wants to own a future doorstop. What we want are the functions of the machine: word processing and e-mail, file storage and transfer, desktop publishing, online sex and lunar landing to name but a few. Note that Neil Armstrong did not own the computers upon which his life depended -- he just used them.If most computers were leased instead of purchased, with responsibility for disposal shifted from the municipal landfill to the manufacturer, there would be a huge incentive to design recyclable machines. Emulating those European auto makers who build cars easily dissolved into reusable components, high tech firms would begin to focus on the end as well as the beginning of their gadgets.Like Twin B a reusable computer could travel a long, long way and still have years of life ahead -- far beyond the day when Twin A and her defunct processors are buried in the cold, cold ground.

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