Low-impact IT: introduction

What is low-impact IT?

We think that one of the most important aspects of sustainable computing is making computers last longer. Big software companies are always bringing out new software that almost always requires more processing power than its predecessors, and therefore requires more powerful hardware, so tends not to work too well on older computers. This results in criminally short lives for most computers. They can be recycled / made to last longer by a combination of a) a bit of tinkering, and b) using open source (free) software, which tends to require less processing power.

First, a bit of history, to show the scale of the problem, and the spectacular rise in numbers of computers. In the beginning, only large companies, universities and government agencies had the resources to buy and maintain large mainframe computers. With the development of the microchip, the personal computer appeared in the 1970s and became an affordable tool for the ordinary person, although you still had to build them from kits.

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The Apple II computer.

Developments such as the mouse and the graphical user interface were pioneered at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, USA and by 1977 these innovations could be seen in the Apple II and other competitors. IBM introduced a personal computer to the market in 1981 running Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system. With their huge established distribution network, they quickly attained world dominance and to this day IBM ‘clones’ have around 95% of the global market, with the remaining 5% being Apple (Macs – the designer’s favourite).

The World Wide Web first appeared in 1992, allowing people to hyperlink pages of information, and with the laying of fibre optic cables in the late 90s, it became possible to deliver content such as video, real-time chat and 3D. This century has seen the deployment of wireless networks allowing mobile computing to become a reality and we are currently at the stage where the computer is shrinking to the size of a mobile phone. All these innovations have propelled a much wider adoption of PCs/smartphones in people’s work and social lives.

What are the benefits of low-impact IT?

So, with well over a billion PCs (in 2010) and rising rapidly, their short lives point to a massive environmental disaster looming.

The resources required to manufacture PC chips (huge amounts of water, minerals and electricity) mean that the earth’s resources are being depleted unnecessarily. Recycling slows down this process. Some machines are stripped down to their raw materials in India and China and sold back to manufacturers, but it is more efficient to recondition and donate or sell cheaply to the developing world, opening up computer education and the web to people who cannot afford a new PC. The same applies to children in the West living in disadvantaged circumstances.

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Motherboard connector slots.

Computer owners tend to upgrade every 3-4 years. Some are sold second-hand and some are dumped in landfill, as they are perceived as having no function beyond their time of currency. Not only is this a waste of good electronic components and precious materials, but over time these same things create highly toxic run-off than can infiltrate the water table. Even if they are sold on, it requires new resources, manufacturing, transport and all the associated pollution problems to produce new computers.

Reuse is a far better option. The majority of users utilise only 20% of a computer’s functionality. By replacing broken components and installing open source software, many computers can become fully functional for many more years at very little cost. These can be good first machines for children as well as elderly people unaccustomed to computing. Another major use is to turn them into servers that can hold your data at a secure and/or remote location and act as a secure gateway to the internet.

What can I do?

Most importantly, don’t chuck your old computer away. You can have a go at revamping it yourself, with the aforementioned tinkering/open source, or you can give it to specialist companies who recycle them, often for the developing world (see our links page).

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Ribbon cable connector points.

If you’re tinkering, you need to learn what the standard components are inside a computer. The motherboard has various slots for memory and external devices such as the power supply, hard disc and graphics/audio cards. Once you’ve been shown, it is very easy to hook up all the components – similar to sticking Lego blocks together when you were a child – a task achievable within 10 minutes as they all use slot connectors. You might require a pair of thin nose pliers to adjust the jumpers for the hard disc, but no other tools are necessary.

If some item is not working you can find replacements for little or no cost by cannibalizing family and friends’ old machines or buying parts at computer fairs. It would be unusual to pay more than £30 for a complete set of components and devices to get you up and running. Individual components are sold for £3-£5 each at fairs. You also have to install the correct type of RAM for the processor you have (there are tables available to look up) and install as much as you can, as it will help the machine and software to run faster.

So that’s the tinkering part. The second part is open source. If you try and install a more modern version of the Windows operating system on an old machine it may well not work due to the hardware not being powerful enough to run the software. Microsoft Windows updates require you to purchase a licensed copy of the software, and often necessitate the purchase of a new machine to cope with the bloated complexities of each new version. They also terminate technical support for each version after a few years, which ‘encourages’ users to buy newer versions just for the added support.

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Ubuntu user interface.

A simpler solution is to erase the hard disc and install a Linux operating system, which will put far less demand on the hardware. It is important to select the appropriate version of Linux that will run well on your hardware. Debian is good for older machines, Ubuntu for a familiar interface, and Fedora for its simplicity and flexibility on machines with higher performance processors. You can download them free online. Their great advantage is that they are backward compatible and will run on old machines.

Better still is a full set of open source programs that will run on these operating systems. You can download Linux Ubuntu, plus office suite, graphics editor, DTP package and web design programs all for free. The equivalent cost would be several hundred pounds for the same type of software running on Windows.

If you go to our free & open source software page, there are links to tutorials on swtiching to free / open source operating systems and software. They’re accessble to non-geeks, and you can post queries if you get stuck.


Thanks to Paul Mobbs of Free Range Activism for information.

We'd love to hear your comments, tips and advice on this topic, and if you post a query, we'll try to get a specialist in our network to answer it for you.