April 18, 2014

Would the needy turn down your obsolete computer from 10 years ago?

I thought about donating the old Gateway tower that I found languishing in the basement, since it still runs fine. It's running Windows XP smoothly on a Pentium II 800 MHz processor, 20 GB hard drive, and 256 MB of RAM (and another 128 MB can be bought on eBay for a whopping $3, shipped). It has a fast CD-ROM, 3.5" floppy drive, Zip drive, 2 USB ports, and ports for modem and ethernet.

Not only does it do everything that a normal person would need, it is backwards compatible to make use of old things that may be still lying around the house, like floppy disks.

And yet such a system would be rejected by all computer donation centers, who preen for their do-gooder audience about how they're keeping bulky electronics from choking up our landfills, helping out others in the community who can't afford or otherwise don't have access to computers, and so on and so forth.

Why? Because their vision of "bridging the digital divide" means giving the needy a set-up that's within striking distance of the computers that the well-to-do use. It doesn't mean giving them something that meets their needs for free. After all, on the Gateway system from 2000, how are the poor supposed to stream pornography in HD? Or the all-important function of hardcore gaming? Giving them a system like ours would only perpetuate the inequality gap in cyber-distraction.

The first hit I got for middle to upper-middle class Montgomery County, MD, was Phoenix Computers -- "reclaim, refurbish, reuse." According to their "what donations can we use?" page, your computer will probably be rejected as obsolete if it's not running a 2.0 GHz processor on a Pentium 4 chip, and will be harvested for parts. Talk about greedy.

Even the T40 Thinkpad that I'm using to type, upload, edit, and comment on this post would get rejected — only 1.5 GHz and a variant of the Pentium 3 chip. Yet somehow I've pulled datasets off the internet, analyzed them in Python, drawn graphs of the results in R, and made PowerPoint talks to present them to others, carrying these on a USB flash drive. And garden-variety web-surfing, of course. But, y'know, the computer experts are right — this thing doesn't provide surround sound for when I'm watching cat videos, so it must be time to just throw this wad of junk in the trash.

Was it just the greedy do-gooders in Montgomery County who took such a wasteful approach toward conservation? Here is an all-purpose page with suggestions for those thinking about donating their old computers, and they are only a little bit more forgiving, explaining that only those that are 5-10 years old are going to make the cut. But under these more generous guidelines, that Gateway that's running XP without a hitch would still get sent to the scrap yard. Not flashy enough for the discriminating tastes of 21st-century proles.

So, for all their talk about frugality and stewardship, these donation and recycling centers behave more as though they were the producers of Pimp My 'Puter for MTV. Aw yeah, son, Black Friday's coming early this year!

Zooming out to the big picture, this entitled mindset among the lower 75% of society is an overlooked cause of how fucked up our economy is becoming. In the original Gilded Age, wasteful status-striving was only an option for the one-percenters. But now that we have democratized access to debt, along with state-mediated schemes like Cash for Clunkers and Obama Phone, everybody can whine like an entitled little bitch their entire lives, and bury themselves under debt in order to play the status-striving game. Hand-me-downs are for losers, and everyone must be a winner.

Today's economic explosions will be far more severe, on account of how broadly the attitude of wastefulness has infected our society. And so-called donation programs that feed this petty sense of entitlement are only going to make things worse.


  1. With software upgrades automatic these days, your brand new computer will gradually get slower and slower until you have to replace it, even if you never install another thing.

  2. fair and balanced4/18/14, 5:04 PM

    The reason those computers don't cut it anymore, besides that modern web standards just assume better hardware (there is a pay off - the web looks a lot better than it did in the late 90's), is that the audience you sympathize with - "normal people" as you call them, have neither the time nor the interest to devote to maintiaining a cruft-free os installation.

    My parent's computer is not as old as your gateway but using it is a pain because they tend to click "install" to every piece of adware that asks them to. Their chome bar alone probably has 5 different pieces of adware on it. I don't blame them - just about any program tries to bring in 3 other piece of spyware with it, "normal people" don't have the ocd to pay attention to it.

    Another thing is bloat. Apple software is supposed to be built specifically for these "normal people". Itunes is a pretty popular piece of software for normal people, have you tried running the lastest version on your gateway? Or are normal people not supposed to be listening to music on their computers?

    On the other hand, just installing an ssd into most computers would make a night and day difference, cpu doesn't matter that much anymore, but your gateway probably doesn't have the right interface.

  3. "don't cut it anymore" -- even for the digitally needy?

    That's like asking people to donate their old TVs in order to be environmentally conscious and help out their community -- that is, unless, it's one of those CRT thingies. We only accept donations of flat panel TVs, 20" or more diagonally, and with a gift card for at least one year of cable service.

    We wouldn't want a divide between those who can and cannot watch Kim and Kourtney Take Miami, now do we?

    The idea that the needy are entitled to state-of-the-art idiot boxes, of one form or another, shows how corrupted our culture has become.

    Of course older computers are slower, but that doesn't make them unusable. Particularly for those who otherwise wouldn't have one in their home. If iTunes takes longer for them -- tough shit. How long did the cyber-elite have to wait to download mp3s from Napster over a dial-up in 1999? (Unless they were on their college's T1 line.) If they could tolerate that then, the needy can tolerate slow iTunes today.

    And for productivity, they could do perfectly well with an old installation of Microsoft Works on a computer running Windows 95. The rest of us did so back in the '90s.

    I wouldn't be surprised if we see a computer version of Cash for Clunkers. Choke the landfills with perfectly good computers, just so the needy can stream porn in HD. The whole concept of "my crappy first car" has gone out the window, and not only for cars.

  4. These "recycling" centers also will not accept CRT monitors -- even if they were flat-screen, 20" set-ups optimized for entertainment use. Sorry, our needy deserve dual-display, 25" flat panels so they can jerk off to two separate porno clips at the same time.

    More perfectly good stuff to choke the landfills with, rather than give it to someone who wouldn't otherwise have one. Stepping up your game and tricking out your rig trumps making do and living within your means.

  5. Steve Johnson4/18/14, 7:16 PM

    Old computers were useful tools for higher IQ people to do productive work.

    Newer computers work better for entertaining lower IQ people.

    What use do the "poor" have for productive tools (that they're probably too low IQ to even use)? They going to produce something?

  6. fair and balanced4/18/14, 7:29 PM

    Well, exactly steve's point, not just the needy, but people in general use computers not for productivity but for entertainment, Web browsing, and Facebook. If you're arguing that they could get by with windows 95 and Microsoft works, well they could get by with an arm load of textbooks too, but they're probably not in a rush to pick those up from the local goodwill either. Back to the main point, for what most people use computers for, windows 95 isn't going to cut it, and your gateway probably won't either.

  7. Newer now "obsolete" computers running windows XP (from 7-14 years ago) do fine for productivity tasks, web, and most entertainment uses even (sans newer retail games and HD video if pre-2005). That's all most people use computers for. Surely someone in "need" who couldn't afford to buy a newer computer ought to be able to appreciate this donation rather than going into debt status striving.

  8. Is it possible that, due to frequent upgrading, they get more donations than they know what to do with?

  9. To elaborate a bit, these organizations have limited resources (money, storage space, volunteer labor, etc.) which must be expended to accept, set up, and distribute donated computers, and maybe teach the recipients how to use them. If they only have enough resources to process fifty computers per month, it doesn't make sense to accept a hundred every month. So they take only the best fifty, or a bit more to build up a buffer, because they can't make use of any more than that. Remember that a computer you can't use is a liability, because it costs money to dispose of them legally.

  10. "Today's economic explosions will be far more severe, on account of how broadly the attitude of wastefulness has infected our society"

    I've been wondering about this. Do you think an economic collapse will accompany a rise in crime rate? I know it hasn't in the past, but i wonder if it will this time.

  11. Obsolescence is a lack of imagination:

    You are right, but this dude is the exception for sure, pretty inspiring:


    older article:


  12. That's a good question Brandon. I was thinking something along similar lines as a possibility but you put it into better words than I would have. An alternative way of getting a perfectly good, albeit "obsolete" computer out to someone in need is listing it on craigslist for free pickup.

  13. If the needy are going to be using their computers purely for entertainment, and not at all for anything productive (like making and following a household budget in Excel), then my point is even stronger.

    The programs make it sound like they're going to help bridge the gap in something that affects income / wealth, however indirectly (like entering expenses into Excel so you can follow how much you spend).

    But if they're only for watching cat videos, reading tabloid stories, and following links to discover this weird new trick to greater wealth -- then it's like turning down a TV that isn't state-of-the-art and that doesn't come with cable pre-paid.

  14. I didn't get the impression from the sites I read that they're overwhelmed by volume and can only accept the most elite units.

    I also follow the Craigslist ads for used electronics pretty regularly, and don't see many ads for free 10 year-old computers. More in the neighborhood of $50. Same for the thrift stores -- they'll accept the computers, but charge $30 and up (with no power cords, cables, mouse, or keyboard). And these sources will also tend not to guarantee that it works or is +/- clean of viruses, etc.

    There should be a healthy market for computer hand-me-downs, but everybody feels so deserving and entitled that it's not there.

  15. fair and balanced4/20/14, 4:28 AM

    Well, the "digital divide" notion doesn't really hold water. If you really need to access information, email, news, or job sites any local library can fill those needs.
    Most provide free access to computers and obviously they have a huge store of information, most of which is more reliable and informative than the average Internet pundit can provide.

    Providing the poor with computers is more about normalizing their standard of living than anything else, and these places aren't there to force things on people, so clearly running excel or wordperfect '92 can't be the standard, because no one is going to take them.

    If people are throwing out their old pc's anyway and someone is willing to take it for free instead, why not? Getting indignant that they won't take ones that are too old for today's entertainment standards because they could still run excel for home budgeting seems to miss the point. The vast majority of people who are relatively better off aren't doing any excel budgeting either, they're surfing Facebook and trying to keep on top of their mortgage payment, hoping they don't get outsourced. Should we expect the poor to be more organized and productivity focused than the middle class? I suppose that's an ideological point.

  16. It is true that listings for free 10 year old computers are relatively rare on craigslist. Occasional free ones listed are typically at least a few years older than that. Merely a suggestion on my part for more people to do so, rather than tossing such computers or letting them languish in storage until they're unusable.

    Uh-huh, there ought to be a market I'll agree Agnostic. I recall being happy as a child getting a then technically obsolete commodore 64 computer handed down from my grandparents. Sure it didn't connect to the net or play the newest games but was still useful in learning basic computer skills/programming and entertaining playing classic games on.

  17. Most of my monitors are still CRT ( 17'' highest quality flat trinitrons) especially on dev servers and I occasionally use machines that are 10-15 years old. My "ultrabook" is a 20th century Thinkpad with celeron 600mhz and 256 mb ram running lubuntu. Your Gateway is the same generation as that, hence it's not 10 years old (in 2004 desktop CPUs were at 2500-3000MhZ range and AMD 64 bits instruction set was on the way) but almost 15 yrs old - and at that time yearly improvements in computer tech were colossal - not just from quantitative perspective (mhz & mb) but also from usability POV. While my ancient Thinkpad is pretty good for light office software and occasional mp3 (and extremely useful when running BASH shell software without xorg) it would be pretty much useless to "a modern prole" with just a basic knowledge of computers. I'm pretty sure I'd have to actually pay someone at least $50 just to take it off my hands.

    2 years ago I barely managed to get rid of the fully functional and well preserved 1GHZ AMD Thunderbird desktop machine with 768 MB RAM, DVD burner, new cooler, 20gb hard drive without bad sectors etc. which I bought new in 2002. (costed more $ than a nice used luxury car) and afterward upgraded (tripled ram, added USB 2.0 controler, and high quality gpu, lan and music adapters). That machine was working great but I couldn't guarantee for how long it's gonna work - entropy is inevitable - hard drives fail, ram will start making errors after some time, and motherboards are prone to bleeding caps disease, old cheap psu units are a realistic fire hazard). CRT monitors generally have a negative market value as they are costly to properly dispose due to heavy metal contents. Bear in mind that PCs are still considered obsolete in 3-5 years - which means that from legal and financial POV a functional Core2duo system with 2 Gigs of dual channel DDR2-800 and a 250GB SATA2 drive is a considered a clunker.

    I understand your POV that if you could still use that machine you see no reason why someone else couldn't. But you're missing a key point here - most people can't put such a scientific machine (not office box, not HTML5 internet utility, not gaming nor hd video rig) to good use, not even repair or maintain it (even if they are unemployed and have all the time in the world they don't have the required knowledge and probably the will to bother). And if the guy (such as you or me) can maintain it - he usually has the tech skill to earn considerable $ and not bother with repairing such relicts (should have no prob earning 500-1000$ for a new machine). In fact todays PCs are so cheap that in high-standard countries the difference in electricity bill over a few years would cover the price of entry level nettop with LCD over absolutely FREE of charge, used but fully functional 10 year tower with a CRT.


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