At first glance, it looked like a great and green idea: use old technology to make new technology. A recent article in the New York Times touts retro designs in “High-Tech Electronics Dressed Up to Look Old” and features old manual typewriters fitted with sensor boards and USB cables so they can be used as keyboards for iPads, Macs and PCs.
I’m not kidding. Look at the picture.
How very steampunk and recycling-oriented is that? I don’t know who buys these things, but the guy behind the high-tech typewriter conversions, Jack Zylkin, is apparently back-ordered a few weeks.
The reuse/recycling greenie in me started to get excited about some of the other cool-looking stuff in the article, like old-looking record players with computer connections so vinyl cuts can be transferred to digital files—warm sounding analog pops and all. There’s also a THX-certified computer microphone that appears like something from the Walter Winchell era—or for you newbies, like the one on David Letterman’s desk on TV (and no, I’m not from the Walter Winchell era). There’s an old-timey telephone handset for digital phones, which looks like something cast from Bakelite. (And no, I’m not old enough to be cast from Bakelite.) And there’s even a contraption that looks like a vacuum tube.
But apparently all that retro-looking stuff, besides the typewriters, isn’t really old and recycled at all. It’s new stuff made to look old, which bad in and of itself, but defeated my whole “cool recycling green idea” whose time has come … and gone … and has been recast in products likely made in China to resemble those products whose times have come and gone.
I understand why many of these products can’t be recycled and fitted with today’s digital technologies. Imagine fitting one of those old Bakelite phones with wireless? It may take more labor than the hours it takes for a guy like Zylkin to solder and steampunk old manual typewriters.
Zylkin’s company, USBtypewriter, bills itself as “a groundbreaking advancement in the field of obsolescence.” It may well be for those who will pay $800 or so to Borg an iPad to an old Royal typewriter.
It makes me wonder if there are other old technologies than can be used for good, without being tossed in a landfill or stripped for recycled metals or burned in toxic pits. Can we do anything with old CRT TVs? Will they ever make a comeback like vinyl records or turntables? Somehow I doubt it. How about those old computers many of us have stashed in our garages and attics and basements? I once considered upgrading an old IBM PS2—anyone remember those—and even fashioning some sort of air-intake hood to help cool it. Then I saw the latest versions of Mac and Windows and forgot all about it.
Head in the Cloud?
Maybe we shouldn’t even think about using old stuff, and just find ways to use new stuff longer. I fully realize that innovation happens and often demands new hardware. That’s the nature of technology. But come on, even a self-described environmentally conscious company like Apple comes out with a first-generation iPad that doesn’t have a front-facing camera, when video chats are one of the next big things? That’s hypocrisy, right there, even if old iPads will go on eBay and make their way to needy schools long before they get “recycled” (we hope). We’re still raving about the first-gen iPad, and it’s already obsolete! And one could argue that it was obsolete when it was introduced.
As much as we love new technologies, wouldn’t it be great to hang onto an iPhone or a TV for more than just a couple of years—if that—and receive most of our needed upgrades via software—like computers? (Though the many who have endured messy OS system upgrades may differ on that.)
We are seeing the capability of updates in more and more electronics, like with modular lighting control systems from LiteTouch, and firmware updates for A/V components are becoming more and more common—especially among new products. Though many firmware updates don’t offer new features, but attempt to fix old problems.
In other words, most firmware updates aren’t offered so electronics products can last longer, manufacturers can conserve resources and products can stay out of landfills and recycling centers.
Wouldn’t it be cool if we saw a lot more meaningful, feature-centric updates to existing products, so we wouldn’t think of the electronics industry as purveyors of “planned obsolescence”? Often with harmful environmental results?
And with more and more services becoming cloud based—Google TV comes to mind—this is more and more possible. Isn’t it?
It would make a great resolution—not for 2011 but … oh … perhaps for the century—or the decade. It’s never too late to start.