cost of computing



Where philosophy meets technology is sometimes a frightening place: AI, the panopticon, social engineering, and environmental devastation.

While the first three of those subjects have received a lot of attention over the past few years, the latter is often ignored, and we routinely fall into the traps set by the industry to buy the latest and greatest devices -- phones, computers, TVs, smart-watches, etc. But what is the cost?

Toxic lake outside Baotou, Mongolia -- credit Liam Young/Unknown Fields

While working on a development VM where I hadn't taken the time to configure Firefox's new-tab page, I stumbled upon this article via Pocket, and while it is five years old, it is a shocking view into the effect our voracious tech consumption has on the environment and people who live and work in these toxic areas.

There are few things as disheartening as the above view (from Liam Young/Unknown Fields) of a miles-long lake filled with pitch-black toxic waste caused directly by our unthinking desire for the shiny new device that is dangled on a stick in front of our complicit faces. And while China is the biggest offender in the tech production chain, rest assured there are probably cesspools like this in almost every country, carefully hidden from prying eyes and the complacent consuming public.

Making it Work

Despite my current profession as a programmer, this led me to a boycott of new hardware (currently with the pragmatic exceptions of data storage media, niche cables, and batteries, for obvious reasons). I had already been using used and refurbished hardware for the most part out of necessity, but this sealed the deal. For what it's worth, I'm not the only one who sticks to old guns. While the use case of the author of Low-Tech Magazine is less demanding than my own, my household makes due with pretty old hardware all around (with the exception of my current cell phone, which I will explain below).

My home office setup

My computers are ksatrya, a Thinkpad X1 Carbon (first generation) and yggdrasil, a Dell Precision T3600 (both close to 10 years old at the time of writing and refurbished with new parts where it makes sense - they run Void Linux) and my phone, muon, an Alcatel Insight 5005R that I bought new out of necessity after my last phone, a 2015 Blackberry Priv, experienced a tragic death by drowning. As mentioned above, my drives are also (mostly) bought new as it doesn't make sense to trust your critical data to used drives. My current setup suits me well, and I thrive in my work and personal projects with the power and versatility that it offers me.

My wife's daily driver is her refurbished 2016 iPhone SE, a device which consistently impresses me. Her secondary device is a 2013 Toshiba Satellite C55 series, a modest laptop which flies pretty fast with fresh thermal paste and an SSD rocking Xubuntu. She mostly uses it for writing, image editing, and web tasks that are uncomfortable on mobile.

We also recently scored a Surface 3 (shipping error, and the ebay seller let us keep it) which we have waiting in the wings in case of sudden hardware failure -- it is a pretty slick piece of low-power computing, Linux support is good, and it could be made into a decent workstation with some decent accessories.

The rundown of my household's computer hardware is not to show off, but to make a point: for working professionals and artists, let alone laypeople who just need streaming, browsing, and email, you do not need the newest gear. The only people who need new gear are niche professoinals: high-end video/3D artists and god-like system administrators and full-stack engineers who need the power to run multiple databases side-by-side, run their necessary heavy work apps, etc. These are valid cases, and there are certainly more, but the vast majority of users don't need anything close to this.


So what do we really care about? The pandemic has turned the tables to a silicon shortage, because we had to have new hardware to work from home instead of making good use of what was already in circulation. As I mentioned above, it's rare that you actually need the latest and greatest hardware fresh out of China to get your work done. So are we slaves to convenience and fashion, or can we be thoughtful about the decisions we make when we procure hardware for our professional and artistic work?

Over-the-top gaming setup posted to /r/battlestations

Another big consumer of new hardware is gamers (also feeling the silicon shortage right now). The above image is a bit extreme (sorry to pick you out, /u/shucioh of reddit), but you get the point. All that hardware is expensive, not just for the consumer's wallet, but for the producing workers, and for the environment. And its primary purpose is frivolous. Now I enjoy a good video game, as a work of art in itself or as a way to stretch my puzzle muscles or just blow some steam, but how does it reflect on a person to spend thousands of dollars on a machine which, in all likelyhood, will primarily be used to simulate imperialistic warfare in stunning detail, and need to be replaced in 2-5 years? How does it reflect on us as a society that we have a thriving market for that?

What bout wearables? The Apple Watch, the Fit-bit, God forbid, Google Glass -- how much value do those add to your life experience? If you use one, how many do you expect to go through in your lifetime? We already have the power of the gods at our fingertips, and yet we feel the need to strap an extra serving to our bodies when it already weighs down our pockets and fills our homes.

It is worth noting that there's a whole side of the live computing world that you don't see, the server-side, and this is almost exclusively populated by brand-new machines that are replaced within a couple years. I believe there are gains to be made here, in terms of finding the maximum age at which it is safe to use hardware for servers in production, balancing redundancy with older, low-power hardware, and upcycling hardware that has reached its limit server-side to then be used on the consumer market where the demands and requirements are lower.

With regards to that server-side hardware footprint, the other way to reduce it is to reduce your reliance on the cloud. Prefer local data solutions wherever possible, and try to stay away from data-hungry web services. It isn't hard. Google is far from the only email or search provider out there. For search there is duckduckgo; for email features you usually have to pay one way or another, via money or data: see zoho, fastmail, etc -- I was lucky to get a zoho mail account with IMAP access for free before they changed their policy; you can also host your own if you have a server, a domain name, and a couple hours to kill. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are not the only social platforms (see mastodon). Keeping local documents and files with an offline backup is dead simple and keeps you in complete control. It just takes a bit of research, forethought, and guts!

But Where Do I Start?

If you're a tech professional or knowledgeable hobbiest, you have plenty of resources at your disposal to make a responsible decision in your computational consumption. But what if you're not?

Well, I worked for 5 months at a local computer shop in Ellsworth, ME called Macrevival + Archangel Computers, run by the impeccable Tom Beal (the pandemic hit and I had to change gears, otherwise I would have stayed longer). At his shop, he purchased used Dell business-class devices (desktops and laptops -- while I worked there from October 2019 - March 2020 they were stocking 2012-2015 models for the most part, with the occasional 2017 or 2018 thrown in) and Macs (2011-2012 mostly but up to 2015) and we inspected, tested, and upgraded them with solid RAM, SSDs, and lean OS builds, and sold them for reasonable prices. We also did repairs to keep old machines humming long after their industrial life expectancies. Of course, he also bought new machines as special orders for a premium, but it was rare.

If you do some shopping around, you can find a local shop with expertise and service comparable to what Macrevival + Archangel achieves (I just moved to Santa Fe, NM at the time of writing this and it looks like there is a similar shop here), and if you're open to a little bit of a learning experience you can have an open conversation about your needs with a local nerd and find a refurbished machine that fits the bill.

With regard to software and data, as I mentioned above, the market is wide open. There are plenty of tools to use, and lots of information to make an informed decision. As with hardware, you can seek out a nerd's advice from a local computer shop if you have no other resources.

As long as our society continues to exist, it seems computers are here to stay. But we don't have to accept blindly the costs that megacorporations and the governments that subsidize them are inflicting upon our world. We can impose enough market pressure with responsible consumer choices to change their behavior, but we have to be frugal, educated, and open to new ideas. I love programming, computers, and open operating systems -- but I love this world even more, and want it to be healthy and verdant as a home for my son as he grows up. Could you face your descendents when they call on your ghost and cite all the techno-gadgets you bought (not to mention the ones you threw away) through your life, and the environmental and human cost they equate to? Can you answer for all the frivolous time you spent on this or that video game or on such-and-such website, wasting electricity and the limited lifecycle of your precious computing device out of boredom? Can you say that you did your part to help mitigate the destruction caused by rampant and thoughtless consumerism and industrialism?