Advisor: Eric Alexander
Times: Fall-Winter 1,2c
As computer scientists, we spend a fair amount of time thinking about the exciting new algorithms we can perform on fancy and powerful new hardware. We tend to spend a lot less time thinking about what happens to all of the machines and devices that we no longer need or want to use. The same is true for technology consumers more broadly: last year alone, Apple sold over 200 million iPhones, most of which replaced older devices that are now collecting dust in a drawer or, worse, taking up space in a landfill.
This is an enormous environmental issue, as discarded electronics account for more than 70% of the world’s toxic waste. It is also an issue of social justice, for while many Americans go through new devices every couple of years, over a quarter of the population don’t own a computer, and roughly a tenth of American families don’t have access to the internet at home (despite it being effectively a modern-day necessity). The problem of electronic waste simultaneously represents active harm being done to our planet along with a passive failure to create a more equitable society.
This project will focus on the current state of this issue, and on what we can do as individuals, as a discipline, and as a society to combat it! Such strategies often fall into three categories: reducing consumption, whether by consumers, corporations, governments, etc; recycling raw materials so that they don’t end up in landfills; and reusing old hardware, either by refurbishing it to be put back to its original use, or by repurposing it entirely.
There will be two main parts to this project. The first will be to generate a thorough report detailing the problem of electronic waste, existing efforts to mitigate it, and the group’s conclusions about the most promising potential solutions for the future. Questions we are likely to ask include:
To answer that final question, we will be working with a number of local organizations dedicated to fighting the accumulation of electronic waste. This collaboration will afford us the opportunity to get our hands dirty, which leads into the second part of the project. In smaller groups within our main team, I will be asking you to test how feasible it is for individuals to make use of outdated hardware by doing so yourself—whether by refurbishing an old machine for redistribution, combining legacy components into something that can accomplish a new task, or even creating an art installation. For this part of the project, we will be working with a subset of the Carleton Makerspace, Free Geek Twin Cities, and the Northfield E-Cycling Group.
The deliverables for this project will be:
This project will involve a combination of working with hardware and working with humans, along with a healthy amount of research into environmental impact and public policy. Potentially relevant prior CS courses include CS 208 (Intro to Computer Systems), CS 232 (Art, Interactivity, and Robotics), CS 257 (Software Design), CS 304 (Social Computing), CS 331 (Computer Networks), and CS 344 (Human-Computer Interaction), while courses in Environmental Studies, Political Science, Physics, and many other disciplines may be useful, as well. However, none of these courses are required, or even expected, as that’s a very long list. Most important is an interest in understanding the broad impacts of technology.