'Second Hand' Tech Controversy a Replay of a 1970s Issue

Is the shipment of used ICT to developing areas an example of environmental and economic sustainability by extending equipment lifecycles and making tech available to those who cannot pay market prices for new gear? Or is it a patronizing position that suggests older tech is 'good enough' for some people and that exacerbates these regions' e-waste problems. This issues has similarities to one from 35 years ago.

Businesses were reluctant to purchase early mainframes because they were afraid that high costs and rapidly evolving technology would strand them with obsolete equipment they could not afford to replace. Manufacturers solved this problem by leasing mainframes, allowing customers to upgrade as technology advanced and needs grew. The manufacturers continued to derive revenue from the returned machines by leasing them at reduced rates to price-sensitive customers. Accusations surfaced that the dominate manufacturers managed a global tiered system in which increasingly obsolete equipment could be leased or sold in markets where the newer generations where deliberately withheld. There was considerable push-back from developing countries. India, for example, banned the import of second-hand computers in 1980.

The newer controversy is over the practice of more affluent regions shipping their older ICT gear for use by less affluent ones. We're generally in favor of extending ICT equipment lifecycles as long as possible through 'sweating assets' and sustainable reuse. And there is nothing inherently suspect with stretching a limited budget by acquiring used goods. People in affluent countries do it all the time with everything from cars to houses...to ICT gear!

Contemporary skeptics of second hand tech argue that it deprives recipients of the latest technology (which is often the most sustainable), that it inhibits the development of local manufacturers, that much goes unused, and that it quickly becomes poorly-disposed e-waste.

Proponents argue that reuse is more sustainable than recycle, that it gets a lot more ICT into the hands of a lot more people than does paying top dollar for new gear, and that emerging economies will need encouragement and help to develop responsible practices for their growing e-waste streams, regardless of how the tech gets there.

This complex issue at the intersection of Green ICT and ICT4D is a good reminder that complex issues of global ICT transfer persist much longer than the life-cycle of any generation of gear.