Hacking Old Tech: Breathing New Life Into Obsolete Devices

By perfectska04, 
GNOME icon artists 
via Wikimedia Commons
One part of our basement used to be a tech graveyard. If you rummaged around, you might stumble upon some of my favourite pieces:
  • My old 1994 Asus laptop with 2MB (megabytes!!) of RAM and a built-in trackball mouse, running Windows 3.1.
  • All my old PDAs: HandSpring Visor, HP Jornada, Compaq Ipac.
  • Every single hard drive that has ever been housed in one of our desktops (for privacy reasons).
  • A Pentium II Windows 2000 laptop from purchased from one of the companies I worked for in 2001, when they were shutting down.
Last summer, we were purging stuff from the basement and hubby suggested (begged?) I ditch anything that no longer had a purpose. I took a bunch of old towers, serial port keyboards and giant CRT monitors to the depot but left behind everything listed above. I just can't part with them. In fact, I'm convinced some of them can find new life.

Every time I pull out the 1994 laptop, hubby sighs. I'm convinced if I can figure out how to get Linux onto 3.5" floppies, that would be a PERFECT little computer! (Insert hubby's eye rolling here)

In fact, that's exactly what we are doing with some of the older boxes.

Take the Windows 2000 laptop. A couple of Christmases ago, I spent 3 days installing Linux on it. I had to try a bunch of distros before I found one that worked. I had to install it entirely offline since the laptop only works from a hard network connection. It does have a wireless card you can plug into one of the card slots but it's for a dial-up modem. #retro

Installing Linux is a simple enough task, but for me it was my first foray into salvaging a piece of obsolete tech with my own two hands. I've long held that "I don't do hardware" but getting hands-on with tech is an important skill for a frugal geek.

Which is why, when the Dude started saying that he wants a laptop for his birthday, we shut that talk down quickly. My current laptop is a 3 year old Windows 7 computer and, yes, it has become a sluggish beast. I've tried uninstalling as much as I could from it and it still runs like molasses in January.

But we can fix it.

I told the Dude that instead of a laptop for his birthday, I am going to teach him how to fix the one we have. He's going to reformat an external hard drive, back up the laptop and then install Linux on it. Then he can reinstall Minecraft.

At 11 years old, these are all tasks he can complete with my direction and supervision (and YouTube videos :) Amazing, isn't it? These are skills I had to teach myself (once I got over my fear of screwing up the hardware) and he gets to benefit from my learning. My hope is that salvaging old tech becomes completely normal to him; instinctive even. In the same way that we've insisted Hallowe'en costumes should be homemade (which doesn't preclude them from being AWESOME), tech should be repurposed to suit when needed.

With the advent of smaller and smaller tech like MP3 players and smartphones, it's easier to purchase devices with the intent of throwing them away, than to commit ourselves to making long term investments. At first blush, it might seem that software, operating systems, and processing capacity evolve quickly enough that it makes long-term hardware investments seem quaint. Like something the older generations might do.

But we are creating a disposable economy and — more importantly — a culture of waste.

Everything will eventually become obsolete but I'd rather think that when a piece of tech reaches obsolescence, it does so in its current form. Instead of throwing it away and pretending it no longer exists, we can use our creativity to see opportunity: to repurpose it, give it new life, make it relevant and useful once more.

Hmm, what if I put a Raspberry Pi in that tiny Asus...