Salvage Computing

Something a lot of the terms have in common is an emphasis on resource minimalism and repair, yet many communities trying to lower their environmental footprint are currently seeking this minimalism in hardware that is very hard to repair and is newly produced. Salvage computing is a response to this hype of small low-power single-board computers, aware of the resulting production of yet more electronics while the world is swimming in e-waste. Devine Lu Linvega, one of the voices of the solarpunk Mastodon instance, proposes that creating software targeting old hardware might be a better approach 1. Gemini creator Solderpunk thinks along similar lines when writing "the real long-term future of computing consists of figuring out how to make the best possible use we can out of the literal millions of devices which already exist" 2. Scholar Jennifer Gabrys describes salvage as a practice of engaging with the discarded "with an eye to transforming what is exhausted and wasted into renewed resources"3. She adds the important observation that this process also means engaging with the conditions that led to disrepair.

The Right to Repair movement, the Restart project, repair cafes, iFixit and U-Fix-It are all targeted at making devices last longer but with the exception of the Right to Repair movement, do not focus on the conditions that led to disrepair: planned obsolescence, the rapid upgrade-or-die cycle of the tech industry and consumer capitalism in general, not to mention the impact of this on the Global South, which is receiving the West’s e-waste and suffers the pollution caused by the production of the Global North’s technology. Out of precarity, and because of the ongoing impact of colonialism, there are very rich and creative repair practices in existence—Jugaad, Gambiarra, Resolver, Shanzhai. Because of the sudden attention in the West to e-waste and supply chains, these practices of improvisation are appropriated and fetishized, yet as Ginger Nolan argues, the romanticizing of the inventiveness of these practices can function as an excuse to keep economic instability and precarity in place 4.

Without romanticizing these practices or ignoring the conditions leading to disrepair, making do with existing and already produced technology saves a lot of resources simply because nothing new needs producing and no e-waste needs processing. As Barath Raghavan and Shaddi Hasan point out in their paper Macroscopically Sustainable Networking: On Internet Quines, a salvage Internet is one way to drastically decrease the Internet’s dependencies, removing the need for manufacturing and transportation as it uses only common, locally available components. They acknowledge it cannot be sustained in the long-term 5. Still, considering today’s urgent need to shrink consumption of resources, it is surprising to see that from the list—reduce, reuse, repair and recycle the last one is the most wasteful, yet has gotten most attention. This emphasis on recycling can only be explained because the other three point to economic degrowth, an unpopular topic in mainstream politics to date. This, again, shows the importance of a political agenda, next to design and praxis. Thanks to the successes of the Right to Repair movement in Europe, repair practices are gaining momentum there. Next to lobbying policy makers, the two most important characteristics of salvage computing are skill sharing and the use and development of open source software that runs on older devices, allowing people to keep using hardware even though the manufacturer has stopped maintaining their product.

  1. Devine Lu Linvega. 2021. Notes on Longtermism and Sustainability.
  2. Solderpunk. 2020. The Standard Salvaged Computing Platform. gopher://
  3. Jennifer Gabrys. 2012. Salvage. In Depletion Design: A Glossary of Network Ecologies. Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 137–140.
  4. Ginger Nolan. 2016. Bricolage. . . or the Impossibility of Pollution.
  5. Barath Raghavan and Shaddi Hasan. 2016. Macroscopically Sustainable Networking: On Internet Quines. In Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS ’16). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1–6.