Posted October 30th, 2012 by John K. Wasilewski

To stop the recycling of things, why not buy a laptop once and when it’s time to upgrade just replace parts inside rather than the entire thing? Desktop PC manufacturers have been doing this for decades although it requires a few unscrewing and slotting things in skills.

The problem is that the mobile technology of phones, tablets and laptops is constantly being worked on to be smaller so companies can offer something slightly better in their hardware every year. Each of the big laptop and mobile phone manufacturers are competing with each other to be the lightest, thinnest, and whateverest. In order to do this all the components in a gadget are made so tiny that they are very difficult if not impossible to replace without damaging the rest of the device.

If the hardware of a modern laptop, not the software that runs on it, needs repairing it can be expensive for an expert to open it up and locate the issue. Some modern laptops and most mobiles are so compact and thin that their cases don’t even have screws and are sealed shut. While they are not impossible to open, doing so may break the casing. In modern laptops more of the parts are more stuck together so nothing is easily replaceable any more.

Modern laptops like this can be broken up and recycled into their component parts, but what a waste that is if all that needed replacing was a circuit board inside. What if there was a way to avoid recycling by improving upon the overall design of gadgets?

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is a non-profit that began in 2005. They wanted to make a computer that was portable and as cheap as possible so school children in developing countries could all be provided with one. Over years of development they have come up with a rugged laptop with a screen that is as readable in direct sunlight as paper is, the hardware inside has been specially selected and programmed to use an extremely small amount of power, and it can be recharged by a solar panel.

One of the key ideas in the design of these laptops was to make them easy to fix, maintain, and upgrade by just about any person provided they have instructions. The modular design means that the screen, touchpad, antennas and keyboard are detachable and can be replaced, by the children themselves. How good would that be, to let the kids fix their own computers?

What can commercial laptop producers learn from OLPC? A lot really. And it’s not just the laptop producers, but you too, if you own a laptop or some kind of mobile device, you are the one who chooses where to put your money whenever you buy a new one. So if there was a commercially available laptop that was slightly bulkier than an expensive 2012 laptop, but meant you could easily fix and upgrade more cheaply and sooner, would you buy it?

A lot of people don’t want the hassle, in these debt-ridden western countries, we’d just use money we probably don’t have to buy convenient and sexy things we shouldn’t really buy because of the damage contribution to the planet. We don’t need them as flashy as they are but many of us are led by the brainwashing television adverts and seductive posters all around the towns saying it will improve our lives and bring us happiness by spending money on an unnecessary, extra thin, shiny thing that you can talk to for the first few months of owning it.

Do we ever consider our long-term happiness, one that is ultimately fulfilled by keeping this planet alive, looking after our fellow humans and the ecosystem surrounding us? I for one want to be happy, I like it. You can do whatever you want, just don’t go complaining on the Internet when basic western living becomes so expensive that fixing your broken laptop means selling your dog (or cat or kidney). How about something more sustainable, something modular, like a modular laptop, phone where you can just replace the parts?

Laptop manufacturers can take note here. Their challenge is to make a system like OLPC is developing, with sustainability in mind, where parts can be replaced easily without having to be a computer expert. They can do it, shame on them if they don’t, but we the consumers need to put our money into the products and companies that take great care of the ecosystem we live in that many of us have become so detached from.

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