Monday, January 05, 2009

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 8: Saving the Planet with Linux

Saving the Planet with Linux

This is supposed to be a political blog, but it's Linux Monday and that means it's time for a look at the politics of software. Nothing's a hotter issue these days, literally, than global warming, and today we'll see how Linux can save the planet.

OK, I overstate my case. That's a common trait for people proselytizing Linux. But putting on my objective journalist hat for a moment (that would be a raspberry beret), it's safe to say that open source software has several environmental benefits over Store Boughten software.

It's painfully difficult to get rid of an old computer. The industry is based around planned obsolescence: Bill Gates upgrades the software, you upgrade the hardware. There's no resale market for old machines, and they're hard to even give away. I've picked up several machines literally off the street.

Sometimes they land in landfills, leaching toxic chemicals into the soil. Or they end up in the Far East, being recycled by hand for trace metals and exposing pennies-a-day workers to those same toxic chemicals.

But with the exception of hard drives, computers really are pretty sturdy, with more life in them than we think. A computer is good enough as long as it does what you want it to. And if all you want to do is surf, check email, and run office apps, why should the operating system be your barrier?

Modern, fully functional Linux distributions will run on old Pentium IIs and IIIs and look just as snappy and move just as fast as they do on an ultra-modern dual core machine. You might have to turn the eye candy down a notch, but I'm not a big eye candy fan anyway. You can take that old machine and set it up for the kids. You can donate it to a charity project like the HeliOS project, which gets Linux-based computers to kids in need. Or you can just squeeze more life out of your old box that won't “upgrade” to Vista.

Linux is greener for new computers, too. The entire netbook niche is based around low-power processors.

Nothing consumes more energy than processes that change temperature: furnaces, air conditioners, refrigerators, dryers... and computers. That CPU that cycles hundred of millions or billions of times a second gets molecules moving, and that's heat. The faster the CPU, the more the heat. That's why server rooms are air conditioned.

Here's some overclocking ├╝bergeeks going way too far to prove the point that CPU speed equals energy: they zap the CPU up to 5 Ghz and cool it with freakin' liquid nitrogen.

I can control my CPU clock speed, though not to THAT extent. When I'm maxed out at 2.4 Ghz, my core temperature is around 190 degrees Fahrenheit. If I switch to power save mode, the speed drops to 600 MHz and the temperature immediately starts dropping down to 135. My CPU-intensive SETI@Home app slows down, so I'm detecting fewer aliens. But I'm sucking less juice and my basic writing and browsing proceed unharmed.

A lower-power CPU equals longer battery life. I've seen this with my own laptop, which is a full-blown desktop replacement. But in the netbook market, which is meant above all else to be portable, it's a selling point. It also means a power-hungry OS like Windows Vista just won't work. That's where Linux comes in. It doesn't hog the system resources and lets you do what you need while using less energy.

Those of us who are really old remember the “long box” debate. They used to sell CDs in... wait a minute, they used to sell CDs... Anyway, in the 80s, when retail stores were converting from vinyl to CD, CDs were packaged in what was called a long box, a plastic-wrapped cardboard box a foot tall like an album, 5 inches wide like a CD. They were stocked side by side, two wide, in the old bins that held records, so stores didn't have to remodel. And it made the pocket-sized CDs bulky like a big square vinyl record cover, and thus harder to fit under your jacket for shoplifting.

The long box also had a psychological effect. Consumers were still getting used to their end product being physically smaller and selling at a higher price, and the long box replicated the tactile sensations of browsing through the store, looking at the cover art, and opening the package.

But it also produced a pile of trash, and this actually became a big deal issue in the early 90s, when environmentalism was riding high and the music industry was entering the last decade of its old paradigm. Artist pressure became consumer pressure. The stores also realized that vinyl wasn't coming back, and found other anti-theft methods.

But these same stores today are still over-packaging other forms of software for the same main reason: psychological effect. No one wants to pay hundreds of dollars for Microsoft Office and get just a book and a couple CDs. The kids got a Nintendo DS game at Christmas. The package was the size of a two CD set, but the game itself was a chip the size of a nickel.

With Linux you're rid of almost everything physical. No shrink wrap, no cardboard box full of mostly air, not even a jewel box. Usually the original install is from a home-burned CD, though it can be done from a file or a flash drive. After that everything is just downloads from the repository, the digital equivalent of bringing your own bag to the grocery store.

That might seem like a trivial benefit. But I work in local government and I can tell you trash is a big deal. Tipping rates at landfills keep going up, and my city council is looking into banning plastic grocery bags. Getting out of the energy and climate change crisis will take billions of tiny steps, and your software can be a few of those steps.

Next week on Linux Monday: Open source and the Third World.

1 comment:

Emil Beli said...

Well, you are right.
Using linux will prolong useful life of whatever computer one is using. Also, we can help people by donating them salvaged scrap machines which could run really nice under minimalistic linux flavor.

HeliOS is doing excellent job. If 30% of people who reads this article just take one old machine, install linux, and donate it to someone who can't afford it, or to some institution for kids, it would certainly make a difference.