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The standard salvaged computing platform
In a previous post:
"Discussions toward radically sustainable computing" (2020-07-26)
I argued that "sustainable computing", for all the buzz and excitement around the term, is more or less an oxymoron, that genuine sustainability actually calls for an urgent halt to the manufacture of new electronic devices, and that the real long-term future of computing consists of figuring out how to make the best possible use we can out of the literal millions of devices which already exist.
I don't expect this to be a popular opinion, but I do think it's right. People talk about "sustainability" as a Boolean concept - something is either sustainable or unsustainable. This only really makes sense if there is a specific timeline attached to the concept, and this is very rarely made explicit. If we are talking about sustainability on the scale of millions of years - and this is by no means unreasonable, there are plenty of extant species today which have lived in balance with their environment unchanged for tens or hundreds of millions of years - then solar power and electric cars and recycled plastic and LED lightbulbs and anything any of us would recognise as "a computer" all fall pretty squarely into the "unsustainable" bracket. The mainstream sustainability movement is actually not very ambitious at all. That doesn't necessarily undermine it. The stark truth of the matter is that many aspects of the modern lifestyle are "sustainable" on a timeline of mere decades or perhaps a few centuries. It's hard to consider that anything other than a genuine emergency. As a tactical, rather than strategic, response to this emergency, "greening up" the underlying technology by a factor of 10 such that the lifestyle becomes sustainable on a timeline of centuries or perhaps even a millennia makes a hell of a lot of sense. But if we genuinely care about "deep sustainability", and about the truly long term, we can't lose sight of the fact that these changes are nothing but temporary stalling tactics. Planning *too* hard for the next phase is arguably unwise, as the future is famously hard to accurately predict. But it seems silly to give it no thought. Tactical decisions should be informed by clear strategy. Hence, I'm keen to hash these ideas out somewhat fully, starting with the thought experiment of what happens if all the semiconductor fabs shut down tomorrow and all we have forever after is what we have today.
Naturally, the salvaged computing landscape is going to be pretty heterogeneous as we make do with whatever we can find. But there will probably be a clearly dominant paradigm, just like there has been for the entire history of personal computing. As much as it pains me to admit it, if the shutdown happens anytime soon then the most likely candidate for a "standard salvaged computing platform" is the smartphone or tablet. Despite all their shortcomings as "real computers", these devices have a number of extremely important advantages in any kind of hypothetical scenario where the trappings of unsustainable industrialism are gone.
One, of course, is simple ubiquity. The vast majority of households in developed nations today have at least one of these devices and probably several. They are produced in such quantities, and the upgrade cycle so short, that many houses will have old and unused phones or tablets sitting in a drawer. They outnumber desktop and laptop computers substantially.
Another is that by design they have their display mechanism and their input mechanism integrated into the same physical package. Desktop computers, videogame consoles and SBCs like the Raspberry Pi are all of comparatively limited utility without a TV screen or a monitor (power hungry things!) and without a keyboard or a mouse.
The real killer, though, of course comes down to power. It's not just that phones and tablets have relatively modest power demands compared to all the other contenders, it's the remarkable uniformity in the power interface. Every single vaguely recent phone or tablet is happy to receive 5V 1A DC power over a standard microUSB connection. Oh, no, wait, that beautiful statement *used* to be true, but we can't have a good thing for ever so now it's "over a standard microUSB connection or this execrable new USB C thing". Compare this situation - one voltage, two connectors - to the laptop landscape, where not only are power demands higher, but just about every manufacturer has their own proprietary connector (or several), and even different models by the same manufacturer require slightly different voltages. If we are to move away from a centralised AC power grid (which in most parts of the world is powered primarily by burning fossil fuels), and toward a world where power is generated in a "just enough, just in time" fashion, very close to the point of consumption - using pre-existing solar panels, improvised wind generators using electric motors salvaged from cars or household appliances, bicycle dynamos, etc., etc., then having highly standardised power requirements is a tremendous help.
None of this is to say the other options have no merit and won't find use, but it seems pretty clear to me that the phone/tablet platform represents the path of least resistance in this vaguely sketched out scenario.
There are, of course, downsides to this platform, most obviously that it is designed with the intention of Apple or Google acting as middle men between users and software developers. Android devices fare better here, in that even without rooting the device it is possible to "sideload" APKs without a functioning internet connection and without Google's involvement or approval. But in general, working toward getting as many of these machines running on "proper", community maintainable, unrestricted operating systems can only be considered vitally important work for the vision of salvage-based, rather than manufacturing-based, computing. The PostmarketOS project - which works toward putting a real Linux distribution, not just Android, on mobile devices, to give them a useful life after their manufacturer stops providing software updates to strong arm people into buying a newer device - is the best example I'm aware of of the kind of work that needs to be done.
PostmarketOS: "A real Linux distribution for phones and other mobile devices"
Of course, if we step away from radical thought experiments and back toward plausible very near future reality, where grid power is still a thing and "real computers" are still perfectly viable, a similar case can be made: operating systems which continue to be bootable and usable even on "old" computers - especially 32bit computers - and software which runs on those operating systems, should be considered very valuable things to develop and to maintain. I've already written about how I think the internet as we know it is fundamentally unsustainable on any kind of long timeline, but it's probably going to be around for the foreseeable future, so ways of using the internet which still work perfectly well on 10 or 15 year old 32bit machines should be cherished and promoted, and stuff which doesn't should be disparaged. That means championing things like Gemini and Gopher but not the web, things like email and IRC and XMPP but not Slack, etc. We should also be thinking about different, better ways to use the internet, and even alternatives to the internet itself, which are more oriented toward intermittent, slow network connections, and people are certainly doing this (see Secure Scuttlebut, see the dat:// protocol, see IPFS, and probably many more things that I'm not even aware of), but we should also be writing software implementing these new technologies which runs comfortably on machines which are 10 years old or older, which I don't necessarily think people *are* doing. A lot of software in the Scuttlebut ecosystem, for example, is written in Electron, a famously resource guzzling framework. If the user interfaces for these new tools are more demanding to run than the underlying cryptography, that's a big problem.
At this point, I feel like a case can be made for the following practices as good "solarpunk praxis" (with an awareness that I'm stretching the term "solarpunk" a bit, as it usually denotes a degree of technological optimism I'm not sure I share - but it seems to be the magic term to use to get noticed by the people I want to have dialogues with):
- Do not buy any new computing device unless you really feel you absolutely "have to". Buy used instead. Only decreasing demand will slow down manufacturing, and only slowing down manufacturing will substantially reduce environmental impact. This is the single most important point in this list. It extends even to things "normal people" wouldn't consider computers - fitness trackers, voice activated personal assistants, smart lightbulbs, etc.
- Whether buying new or used, strongly prefer something which runs and/or charges directly from 5V DC (or perhaps 12V DC): they will be more useful in a world without ubiquitous AC grid power, which is what true sustainability looks like. This is more important when buying new - capitalist manufacturers will naturally shift toward manufacturing more of what sells and less of what doesn't. Exercise this very real power for good - but only as a last resort.
- When buying mobile devices, whether new or used, strongly prefer Android devices over iOS devices: they will be more useful in a world without Apple, Google or ubiquitous internet, which is what true sustainability looks like. This is more important when buying new, as above.
- Whether buying new or used, strongly prefer devices which are user serviceable over those which aren't. The manufacturers are almost never your friends in this, so this is mostly a matter of choosing the least bad option. This is more important when buying new, as above.
- Somewhat ironically, do not "do the right thing" and recycle old unused devices which still run but are just "old" or "slow" or are unsupported. The inefficient and environmentally unfriendly electronic recycling process will turn a working computer into a non-working computer, which is never a winning proposition. Instead, give them new life by installing PostmarketOS (on mobile devices) or a specialist OS targeting old hardware (on non-mobile devices). If you do not have the skills or interest to do this, try to donate the device to somebody who does. Places like hackerspaces should play an active role in this - teaching skills, collecting devices, reflashing devices, and distributing devices.
- Identify projects which develop software to run on "old" or "slow" or unsupported computing devices, or which try to "jailbreak" or otherwise liberate locked down devices to make them more general purpose, and if you can contribute to them by donating hardware, writing code, writing documentation or donating money, do so, to whatever extent your skills and circumstances allow it. These projects are far more important than projects to design and manufacture new, "better" hardware in the interests of sustainability. Manufacturing is the *problem*, it cannot be a large part of the solution.
- If you are a free software developer, buy yourself a used computer which is 10 years old or older (if you don't already have one), and see how well your software runs on it, if it runs at all. If the results aren't impressive, try your best to improve them. Learn lessons from the experience, apply them to everything you write going forward. If your favourite operating system doesn't run on the machine at all, find a new favourite out of the ones which do, and use it even on your newer machines. Push back hard against the tendency for software "progress" to deprecate working hardware.
- If you are a free software developer, consider learning to write software for Android, even if in an ideal world you'd really rather not. It seems likely to be by far the most common usable computing platform in an off-grid world. Distribute your software only through FDroid or by directly distributing signed .apk files yourself.
- If you are an Android user who doesn't know how to install software without relying on the Google Play Store, learn how. Teach your friends.
- If you are an open hardware tinkerer, practice building reliable and efficient off-grid 5V DC supplies in as many different ways as you can. Share your results widely. Develop instructions which can be followed by people with minimal skills and tools.