Maybe it’s because the planet is on fire right now with war and attempted warfare on commercial airliners that the transactions of everyday life take on a new level of absurdity. On the one hand, it’s always sad to witness someone throwing a fit loudly over a botched order at Carl’s Jr. when you think of what, say, people confined to electric wheelchairs put up with every moment of their lives. It’s another when you know that, past that cheeseburger that was not supposed to have onions, there are people on the other side of the world being bombed in their homes.
It was some of this that kept me from completely freaking out three weeks ago when my hard drive crashed. Short of some pending miracle of retrieval, valuable data was gone… forever. Equally troubling was the realization that my wonderful, faithful Dell running Windows 98 was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Many would say, “It was time” the way people do when an elderly loved one passes away. Come on, dude, Windows 98? Who’s running 98? Muffler shops in Kazakhstan? Those more attuned to the relationship between computer users and their machines might ask, “Were you hoping it would just run forever?”
Yes, I was. And not just for sentimental reasons. I resent the way that American consumerism has gone from the “planned obsolescence” of the 50’s and 60’s to a seemingly far worse predicament that forces us to turn-over all our personal technology on a kind of three-year cycle. If you’re not on a page with what I’m talking about, you will be when they announce a new DVD format that makes your players and discs obsolete.
If economics didn’t demand that you regularly buy new software and hardware, they could easily design a desktop computer that did everything that you might ever want done… and it would outlive you. If we were all somehow terminated at once by an alien invasion or a new strain of flu, our machines would stay behind and tell our stories. On our hard drives would be our old e-mails, downloaded music favorites, pictures of our loved ones. Our life machines, available to anyone interested in knowing who we were, would sing our immortality.
Alas, none of this consoles me as I gaze at the sizeable pile of technological waste I have created in the simple act of buying a new replacement computer. I had to get a new printer, because the old one didn’t take a USB plug. The keypad, a tad grimy and a dated shade of beige, is also out. I may have a friend interested in the old printer, but that just means that he’ll be throwing out his printer when he takes mine.
There are firms that recycle the metals in electronic waste, and others that buy up used computers and sell them to, well, muffler shops in Kazakhstan. But I would still like to make the point that I had to buy all new gear because the act of replacing the hard drive in my existing machine would have only produced a kind of rejuvenated antique. The plugs and the operating systems and the chips… everybody else had moved on. I would be left behind.
There are places, out in the middle of nowhere, where old automobiles go to die. Mountains and walls of rusting car wrecks reach to the sky, and if you ever have the chance, you might try standing for a few minutes at the base of one of these monuments to discarded goods. The energy used to build and run them is gone, and they will never serve again. Except as a reminder that we all consume and leave behind not trails or paths of waste, but mountains of it.