(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

(continues from here)

Does it end here? Maybe not: the scanners, printers, external modems and tablets one could buy a few years ago have connectors which are not necessarily present on all the motherboards sold today. If this is the case, it’s time to figure out what is less expensive and time consuming between buying extension cards with those connectors or new printers, scanner and so on altogether: either way, more money will be spent.

Note that the “buying extension cards” route is feasible only if the software components (drivers) which control the original printer and other devices are compatible with the new operating system. Yes, because there is no guarantee that the old operating system installed on the internal disk will be compatible with the new amount of memory, the new processor and extension cards and so on.

By this time, all is left of the original computer are mouse, keyboard, CD or DVD players, the disk and the case. Not bad, is it? Especially when considering that there was nothing wrong with all those other pieces, and that they would have continued to work for years, had it not been for those 88 MB of extra memory.

Of course, all this pain would have lasted much less if the “old” computer had been a laptop: they are still manufactured and assembled in so many non-standard ways, using custom components, that unless the laptop can handle more memory as it is, the only solution is to forget upgrades and buy a new one.

So this is the true cost, both on people wallets and on the environment, of that apparently harmless “next version of program X”. Repeating the exercise for every computer of every government or business makes very easy to see the landfills being very busy with e-waste for the next few decades.

Again, please note that this true cost doesn’t depend at all from the official cost or license of a program. The only things that make the difference are the hardware requirements of software programs and the protocols and formats they use to exchange data. In the first case, it is essential to develop and use software whose environmental impact, er we mean hardware requirements, is as low as possible: office productivity software, for example, could be written to run smoothly on the average computer of three years ago, not only the shiniest model that one can buy in stores this week. Regardless of how one plans to license or market that software.

The solution: use the right software, protocols and formats

Of course, this doesn’t mean at all that society should do without software, or stop extending the adoption of digital technologies (when such adoption does make sense, of course). It is just necessary to be aware of all the risks and act accordingly.

All citizens and their Public Administrations or Schools can contribute to fight the e-waste crisis in many ways: one of the easiest and most effective ways is to make computers live longer, that is to replace them only when they actually break. This is much easier than it seems. Luckily, any computer is only as old as the software it runs. As long as that software lets you work and, above all, it is possible to communicate with other computer users, there is no reason to replace it.

We have already explained, however, that software can have very unpleasant effects even if you stop using it or others around you use it improperly. Software-induced pollution is bad in the same way, since tolerating it on a few computers may force many others to pollute in the same way. This is especially true with Public Administrations: one single Ministry which begins requiring digital documents that can be only created with the latest version of a specific program may force all its parties to waste perfectly working computers, for the reasons described above. Therefore, besides the cultural and civic reasons we already know about, there are also health and environmental ones to demand that only truly open digital technologies are adopted.

Websites that destroy forests

Speaking of the impact of software on natural resources, one consequence of the huge diffusion of the Internet has been a great increase in the number of documents printed and discarded almost immediately, for a lot of different reasons: paper is still more comfortable than monitors for one’s eyes, information like train or plane schedules must be carried along for reference and so on. In spite of this, many websites do not provide a version of their pages properly formatted for printing.

They either publish their text inside unprintable movies or seem to design pages with the explicit purpose of wasting as much paper as possible: sometimes, for each paragraph of text, the printer also spits out three or four pages of advertising, navigation menus and other stuff that one has already seen or, like the menus, is simply useless on paper.

Making available properly printable versions of each page of a website is an easy task for a competent webmaster. Restructuring a very large, already existing website is a different issue, but even in that case it is important to complain and ask for more forest-friendly websites.