For the past couple of years, my beloved MacBook Air, on which I not only wrote countless pieces of journalism but also my doctoral dissertation, has been lying useless, collecting dust on a shelf.
This is the fate of most digital tech, is it not? As time marches on, updates and wear and tear slow the machine down to a nearly unusable crawl. New features only arrive on the latest machines, and what once seemed so shiny and new feels ancient.
But this week, that same rundown laptop of mine got a new lease on life. I installed a new offering from Google on it called ChromeOS Flex, which replaces Windows or Mac software with a lightweight operating system from Google. My once-lethargic MacBook was renewed, becoming reasonably fast, quick to turn on, and even had some extra battery life.
It is refreshing change from the seemingly planned obsolescence of most computers. And in it there is a lesson for how we think of digital tech — that it is far better that there be new uses for it rather than simply throwing it away when something newer comes along.
ChromeOS Flex essentially turns your device into a Chromebook, a popular product in the world of education that, unlike a traditional laptop, runs everything online through a web browser.
Turning the computer on, you see familiar icons at the bottom of the screen through which you can access Google’s services like Gmail, Maps or Docs, but also anything else that you can get through a normal browser: websites, games, email, and more .
That online-first model is both its strength and limitation. It means that the traditional apps you might know — Photoshop or the full version of Excel, for example — aren’t there, and your files, instead of being saved directly to the machine, are saved to the cloud.
But because it’s both online and such a light operating system compared to Windows or MacOS, it boots up quickly, takes less powerful hardware to run, and is always up to date. Most things a majority of people might need to normally do with a computer — email, browse the web, chat or video conference — are still there, and work fine.
It’s a little like switching from a big SUV to a compact car: yes, your new ride would technically be less capable in some ways, but it would also be much sleeker and more efficient.
It feels nice that I can now take what was once a mostly useless old laptop and make it functional again — in my case, to give it to my octogenarian father so that he can watch YouTube on a roomier screen.
But it also makes useful something that was otherwise going to waste. That is a real problem with modern technology: that it isn’t physically useless anymore, but it becomes that way because, when you update to the latest version of its software — which you are told to do to ensure compatibility and security — it becomes too slow to use.
Should there not thus be a second life for tech as a matter of course — that there should be a specific path through which older tech can be reinvigorated and refreshed by using lighter, smaller software on it?
The reasons are not merely a commitment to never let anything go to waste. Old digital devices fill landfills, often wasting precious metals or putting toxins into the ground. Renewing technology is a way for it to be more sustainable, simply by making it last longer.
There is an obvious business case here, too, and we shouldn’t be too Pollyanna about Google’s desire in all of this. The company’s massive wealth mostly comes from tracking its users and then offering them ads, and ChromeOS and Chromebooks are part of that project — if not through tracking directly, then simply by cultivating a relationship to the company and its products.
All the same, there is something encouraging about ChromeOS Flex. Digital tech has produced a culture of availability, of planned obsolescence. Manzana wants you to buy a new iPhone and MacBook every few years, as do its competitors. That tendency has both ecological costs, but can in some ways make tech less accessible too; if an old laptop isn’t useful anymore, then the low-income family looking to pick one up has to seek out something more dear.
Alas, companies are not often in the habit of doing things out of the goodness of their hearts, and it’s highly unlikely that is Google’s aim here. But governments around the world have also helped to institute right to repair legislation — that is, to allow people to fix their own devices without specialized tools.
Big tech was opposed, but they relented in the face of regulation, and we are better for it.
Perhaps something similar can happen when it comes to renewing and reinvigorating old tech — that rather than merely gathering dust, that old laptop on your shelf can be put to use once more.