How To ReUse Old Tech

htrotTHE OLD SONY TELEVISION IN MY HOME OFFICE WAS considered state of the art when I bought it 20 years ago, and it still displays a beautiful picture. It’s far from obsolete. The only problem is that it doesn’t have enough audio-visual inputs for all the cable, satellite, videocamera, VCR, and computer multimedia jacks I want to stick in it.

The new TV–the salesman calls it a “video receiver and monitor” has lots of A/V jacks and sports a bigger screen than the old set’s 19-inch one, and it costs less. Not a bad trade-up.

Meanwhile, I’ll hand down the old Sony to the kids, who don’t care about such things as S-video inputs, dual-tuner PIPs, and graphical onscreen operating systems–they just want to run video games and watch MTV. If the old set can stand such excitement after years of being tuned to CNN and CNBC, it may be good for another few years.

If only computers were so long-lived.

Like me, the PC in my home office has become increasingly decrepit and memory deficient. It’s too bulky to use as a family message center in the kitchen; it’s too kludgy to network easily; and it can’t run the newest software without expensive brain and organ transplants. Will it last 20 years, like the TV? Ha! Maybe 20 months.

The value of computers can’t be measured in dollars alone, of course. After all, the old PC has paid for itself many times over in increased productivity. Still, those of us who’ve been through several generations of PCs have learned that computers lose their dollar value faster than almost any other major investment.

So what do you do with the old dust-gatherer? You could try to sell it. There’s a brisk market for late-model PCs in good shape. Be prepared, however, for reverse sticker shock: The computer system for my company–which I bought for $5,000 in 1992-would fetch only several hundred dollars today. The configuration that cost me $5,000 in 1987 was recently offered for $125. And the one I paid $5,000 for in 1982 was recently advertised for–brace yourselves now–S25.

Alternatively, you could do a very good deed, make people happy, clean out the closet, and get a tax break at the same time–all by donating the machine to a local school.

In this back-to-school month, the computer outlook at many public schools isn’t bright. Budget cutbacks have kept the computer-to-student ratio in some districts to near Luddite levels. (Worse, many school administrators don’t seem to realize that their schools will also need phone lines and modems if they want their students to be able to use the computers they have to best advantage.)

According to California officials, if just 10 percent of the state’s unused computers were donated each year, schools there could have a million bonus machines in classrooms by the year 2000. Thousands of people could gain job skills and self-esteem by learning to fix and recondition the computers that business owners may no longer need.

To that end, several states and communities have established programs to collect PCs that are gathering dust. The computers are taken to vocational schools, prison workshops, or local computer clubs for testing, refurbishing, and repair. Lost causes are stripped and scavenged for parts. In the process, students, homeless people, prisoners, and others are taught to troubleshoot and repair the donated PCs, giving them valuable job skills that will last long after these computers are truly obsolete.

The rejuvenated computers are then distributed to schools, community centers, libraries, nonprofit organizations, and other groups that desperately need them. Even overhauled, they may not be suitable for the latest multimedia chores, but they’re certainly useful for simple word processing, database, and spreadsheet tasks. One of the more satisfying uses of donated computers is in children’s wards in hospitals, where they enable otherwise isolated youngsters to play games, stay in touch with friends and family via e-mail, and keep up with school studies.

Unfortunately, donating doesn’t solve the whole problem. Although it’s surprisingly easy to find hardware and software donors–a simple newspaper ad in New Mexico recently generated five truckloads of donated computers for a school district–it’s surprisingly difficult to match them with recipients. Many groups are forced to decline some donations because the offered computers don’t match their needs. Others are staffed by volunteers who don’t know how to use computers, let alone know where to seek them.

That’s where local entrepreneurs and volunteers come in. Business owners typically have experience with computers and software, with marketing and publicity, and with the community–a rare and valuable combination.

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