Never idle. (donations of used computers) (Column)
by Steven Anzovin
Why can't your old PC live forever? Sure, manufacturers want you to trade in your old machine every year. They make more money that way, and that money funds the next important computing advance. But your faithful PC can still crunch numbers for the computationally disadvantaged even after you've moved on to that clock-doubled, warp-speed 486. Just ask Alex Randall, the guru of PC recycling, whose mantra is Never idle, never idle.
Randall is the founder of the Boston Computer Exchange, the first go-between organization to specialize in buying and selling used PCs. The idea for the BoComEx, he told me, grew out of discussions with his teacher and mentor, the late anthropologist Margaret Mead. What happens to ideas and tools that elites leave behind? Older technologies generally work their way down the economic strata, with the oldest tech ending up in the hands of those with the least money or social status.
But by the early 1980s, it was obvious that the cycle of PC obsolescence (a concept Randall abhors) was to be only a year or two long, and there was no channel for moving older, unwanted PCs to where they were still needed. Randall decided to create that channel. In 1982 he announced the Boston Computer Exchange during a meeting of the Boston Computer Society, and he was immediately deluged by orders.
Randal ran BoComEx for eight years--"not the way to get rich," he jokes--and then turned his attention to a new PC-recycling project, the East West Education Development Foundation. East West solicits donations of PCs with little or no money value from corporations and individuals, whips the PCs into usable shape, and recycles them to charities and nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and abroad.
East West sends half the PCs to schools and other U.S. charities selected by the donor and the remainder to charities in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. "For a Czech computer user," notes Randall, "a 286 PC is not brain-dead. It's a jet-propelled toy of the twenty-first century."
Randall believes East West provides an essential house-cleaning service. "This is the necessary background waste elimination process of the computer industry. If old machines are kept by users because they can't get rid of them, fewer new machines are bought. With us, the industry stays healthy; without us, it drowns, in its own garbage." The same could be said of other organizations working similar territory. Educational Assistance Limited (EAL) is an organization that donates PCs to colleges for tuition credits that are awarded to underprivileged students; the National Cristina Foundation arranges for donated PCs to be provided to organizations that train the physically challenged to help them get high-tech jobs.
Any of these groups would be glad to have your PC, but you may find a good place to donate it closer to home. Most schools are desperate for IBM personal computers. (Schools may even prefer older PCs, because their rugged steel cases last longer in the school environment, which is probably more brutal on equipment than the dust storms of Saudi Arabia.) Your local church, temple, or survival center can likely use a PC, too. Before you pass on your old PC clean it up, format the hard disk and reinstall DOS, round up all cables and expansion cards, and bundle it with any old software you think might be useful (original disks and manuals, please).
For further information, contact the Boston Computer Exchange at Box 1177, Boston, Massachusetts 02103; (800) 262-6399, (617) 542-4414. The East West Education Development Foundation is at 49 Temple Place, Boston, Massachusetts 02111; (617) 542-1234 (voice), (617) 542-2345 (fax). Educational Assistance Limited is located at 1275 East Butterfield Road, Suite 108, Wheaton, Illinois 60187; (708) 690-0010. The National Cristina Foundation can be reached at 42 Hillcrest Drive, Pelham Manor, New York 10803; (800) 274-7846.