Creation of Computers on the Local Level

In the Mobile computing, is there a way forward? thread, I had mentioned this subject. I figured I would split it off into its own thread so that anyone who is interested in it can dialogue about it.

I will post a brief summary to start off. The following is actually part of a much, much larger research paper/project, but I feel as if I should share this part here…Reference and resource links throughout, although many here are probably familiar with a lot of this already…Feel free to skip over this if you just want to comment on the topic itself…

General Premise

Humanity needs to completely transform the manufacturing process of computers all over the world (into a “circular economy” by following “permacomputing” principles) until everything is environmentally-friendly, ethically made, built to last, and free for everyone. One way of transitioning towards this is by repairing, recycling, and creating computers on the local-level through sustainable makerspaces / repair cafes.

Brief Assessment of Problems

Speaking generally, there are many issues when it comes to the manufacture of electronics. To give a brief gloss of a few of them:

1. Ecological Impacts

There are a huge number of pollutants associated with “e-waste” (i.e.: the electronic devices that end up in landfills). These include plastics, heavy metals (like mercury and lead), and so on. They destroy the environment and harm the wildlife within it in various ways. The recycling programs for handling it are often a joke as well.

2. Human Rights Abuses

Not only are many of the materials used to make electronics toxic to humans, but nearly every aspect of their manufacture is filled with abuse of some kind (e.g.: unsafe working conditions, child labor, overwork, etc.). That includes everything from the mines that supply the raw materials to the assembly lines within the factories.

3. Privacy Concerns

With the prevalence of things like “smartphones”, “smart” home devices, and the idea of “smart cities” being rolled out as a “solution” to the problems of urbanization, nearly everything is being connected together into a giant digital “panopticon”, where a relatively small group of people can monitor the activities of the many. Those conditions are often encouraged by “data brokers”, businesses that gather personal information and sell it, and government organizations that do “mass surveillance”. They usually feed back into one another, and together, they form a giant “military-industrial complex” focused almost entirely upon commerce and control.

All of those same issues carry over into more specific hardware components to some extent. For example:

It is hard to find out about the existence of such things because the design of most computer processors, as well as the majority of instruction sets that control them, are “proprietary”. One of the only exceptions is RISC V, which is an “open standard” for public use. Generally, we need more hardware projects like the MNT Reform Laptop and Andrew Huang’s Precursor, which can be completely taken apart and inspected by the individual using it.

A lot of software is vulnerable in a similar manner, whether intentionally or unintentionally. For example:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has developed a lot of “spyware” (i.e.: software that is intended to monitor what someone does on their computer). The public has only been made aware of some of it years after it was used (such as “Carnivore” in 1997, “Magic Lantern” in 2001, “CIPAV” in 2007, etc.).

Since we cannot look at the “code”, or program instructions that make up many pieces of software, it can be difficult to verify what exactly it does in the background. Ideally, all software would follow the “free software” philosophy (and use licenses like the GNU GPL).

What can we do? While standards for “open architecture” and “free software” are important, they are not enough all by themselves. But if we can simplify the production and programming of computers to the point where anyone can do it, then it becomes easier to make it both transparent and sustainable. It can also help put computers and other technologies into the hands of people who might not have access to them otherwise.

Brainstorming The “How”

It is simple to share educational information on how to program. Showing how to make modern computer chips step-by-step is a lot more involved though. It is a very complex process that requires sophisticated techniques based upon in-depth Physics and Chemistry knowledge. It also uses a lot of (incredibly expensive!) specialized equipment.

Further, thanks to “miniaturization” (i.e.: the push towards ever smaller components), deciphering how pre-existing items work by “reverse engineering” them can only be done with some of the oldest of computer processors.

Despite those obstacles, it seems possible to create “retro”-like computers on the local level by “leapfrogging” off of the historical developments that lead to computer chips in the first place. The work of Sam Zeloof and Jeri Ellsworth demonstrate how computer chips can be made in a small lab or at home. And James Sharman’s 8-bit computer is a wonderful example of how just about everything else that makes up a computer can also be built from the ground up.

Finding new strategies for digital preservation is important. This includes making a record of old computer parts (e.g.: databases like The Retro Web, WikiChip, CPU DB, CPU World, etc.). These designs can be reused or adapted, and much can be learned by looking at trends in their development over the years.

Computers with slower speeds are still good for many applications, so long as we simultaneously get rid of all of the “bloat” within the software. To quote Ville-Matias Heikkila’s article “The Resource Leak Bug of Our Civilization”:

In other words, every time that computers have gotten faster, a lot of software has expanded to use up as much of those resources as possible. Is that “old tech” really “obsolete”? Again, if we are going to scale down hardware, we also have to simplify the software running on it. The “demoscene” community is particularly skilled at squeezing incredible performance out of relatively “slow” computers.

Another inspiring example is the work of Devine Lu Linvega and Rekka Bellum. One can learn a lot by exploring a summary of their projects, and by diving into their philosophy about hardware and software. What can we do with this type of approach?

Imagine community-operated spaces where we can create simple “single-board computers” (SBCs) from scratch, and then learn how to program them to do some sort of useful task, like running agricultural equipment to sustainably produce our own food? If we work together, these sorts of spaces are within our grasp! Our resources may be limited, but our resourcefulness is not. How can things be regenerated?

It is possible to make an entire machine shop out of scrap aluminum. Can a similar approach be used to make devices like “3D printers” and “CNC machines”? We could then use these to create the “printed circuit boards” (PCBs) necessary for other electronic devices, and to form the plastic cases that protect them with filament derived from recycled bottles.

Once we have a good foundation, we could then research how to make all of it more efficient and ecologically responsible. People become discouraged from practicing “amateur science” or “invention” when they compare their own resources to a laboratory run by a giant corporation or government, but I think significant technological breakthroughs could be made without a huge budget. For example:

“Genetic engineering” is becoming available to the home experimenter. There are even student competitions in “synthetic biology”!..Imagine “growing” your own computer?

These things can only constructively benefit society when they are developed and applied responsibly by every individual out in the open, rather than being hidden away within government and corporate research laboratories for the purposes of commerce and control.

TL;DR: How would you go about making computers from scratch at home in ways that are sustainable, and what are the worldwide social implications of this?

Here, I am mostly referring to hardware (and to a lesser extent, software). If anyone is interested, I can create another topic about creating community networks.

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I’m not sure I’d go about making computers from scratch when there is so much e-waste, so many computers that could be salvaged, repaired, and resurrected by installing FreeDOS, GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, OpenIndiana, 9front, or some other operating system that isn’t Windows or macOS.

Just this past weekend I installed Slackware on a laptop somebody sold me for a hundred bucks because it wouldn’t run Windows 11 and was therefore “garbage”. It was a x270 Thinkpad in great condition with a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM. I’ve disabled the Intel Management Engine, and if I get sufficiently worried about firmware-level backdoors I’ll figure out how to replace the existing firmware with LibreBoot or pay somebody to do it for me. It’s more than powerful enough to run GNU Emacs, and there are people who live in Emacs, and long as I can find spare parts for it (CPU fans, NVMe storage, batteries) I could probably use it for decades for writing and tinkering with my website.

If enough people were comfortable with command-line interfaces, there are machines made in the 1990s that might be perfectly adequate for their needs if they had the right operating systems and software. I mean, George R. R. Martin is still using WordStar for DOS. And the MSX, Commodore 64, and Amiga architectures are probably computer enough for most people, even today.

I honestly think our sustainability problems are a problem with overproduction. We can never seem to make just enough; we always seem to either make not enough to meet demand, or create excess inventory often goes unsold and then thrown away. We seem determined to create a new model of everything every year, instead of creating equipment that lasts at least a decade and selling spare parts. And, frankly, it seems better to underproduce than overproduce. You can always make more if there’s a genuine need for it, something beyond making the line go up and to the right.

Also, anything developed by the government or at a university or with government funding should go directly to the public domain, where anybody can use it. No patents. No copyright. If the public paid for it, even in part, then the public owns it. IMO, that includes corporations, too. Corporations should not have intellectual property rights; they would not exist without government charters.

Only sole proprietors or partnerships should get patents and copyrights. Corporations need to be scaled back and kept on a much tighter leash, instead of being allowed to dominate the economy.

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Yes. Manatee dreams of going to a maker/repair café that is also literally a café. A place to hang out, get a cold drink, learn stuff, and make stuff.

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Similar to what @starbreaker was saying, I think recapturing that E-waste and repurposing it is a great alternative while waiting for the industry to improve their practices.

I’m currently sitting on 2 motherboards (1 somewhat wonky), 2 CPUs, 2 GPUs and loads of RAM I have no use for currently. As things stand I’m just holding onto them so they don’t end up in landfill, as most of it still works and I just don’t have enough parts which are compatible with each other to have kept using any of it.

I plan to donate it to one of the charities I found which will store it and try to build cheap computers for those who need them, but that has to wait as I’d need to pay for shipping and handling.

I think it’d be really cool if my local hackspace had a hand-me-downs program or if I could just leave them with loads of computer parts and trust that they’ll see them to good uses. (which they probably would anyway, but I’d rather see them repurposed into Linux PCs for poor kids or something, instead of being used up as parts for personal projects)

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A single-board computer from the 2010s (raspberry pi and similar) can probably emulate any home computer or game console from the 1980s while also using less power and occupying less space.

New hardware improves efficiency particularly in important applications like streaming video.

The time for permacomputing is “not yet, but maybe soon.” Video will eventually be “good enough” and power efficiency gains will slow down.

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I’d say that for plain text, still images, audio playback, video playback, and maybe audio production as well, the time for permacomputing was three years ago. If I was going to buy a newly manufactured desktop computer, I’d seriously consider a Pi.

I SO AGREE. This would save SO much waste, since we would be free to tear these machines apart and freely exchange documentation on how they work. I’ve looked into repurposing simple things like laptop keyboards and screens before, and usually what stops people is not knowing the pin-out and other minor hardware details that we should have references for.

@purelyconstructive thank you for all the links in your post! I really enjoyed reading through it all, and I learned quite a bit from stuff you linked that I’ve never seen before.

I try to do my part by using all of my electronics for as long as I can, and then repurposing them when they don’t work as daily drivers anymore. I have an old laptop that I revived by putting Linux on it, and it still runs great, if a little slow.

While I agree that we maybe shouldn’t be building whole computers from scratch due the amount of e-waste around, I think the real way for home PCB building to shine will come from making replacement parts. These are the bits that manufacturers neglect since it doesn’t bring in as much profit and selling an entirely new piece, and yet we as consumers need them to keep our machines still running.

There’s a whole category on Thingiverse just for vacuum cleaner parts, which I think is brilliant, since these are so hard to find if you don’t want to buy a new one ever three years. Just as 3D printing can help us extend the life of our gadgets by giving us the ability to make custom parts that are no longer on the market, I think custom PCBs can probably help us replace bits of old computers that need to be brought up to date.

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Congrats on the sweet Thinkpad deal @starbreaker!

I agree. That is a significant problem. I really like how the philosopher Lewis Mumford articulates it:

So, I think creating from scratch should only be done in situations where reusing and recycling items is no longer feasible. For example, a video about how vintage tech is dying was pointed out to me recently. It would be good to know how to recreate things in such instances. The third and fourth paragraphs within the Brainstorming The “How” section above have a few ideas on how to accomplish that.

Ideally, a computer would be like a cast-iron skillet, something that you invest in once and then repeatedly hand down through your family line because it is sturdy, durable, reliable, useful, and other nice adjectives…In addition to being built like a tank, I guess this “cast-iron skillet” would be modularly upgradable too. Hahah!

Indeed, this is actually what makes reusing and updating “retro” computers a viable long-term option in my opinion. I had mentioned demoscene, but even if we aren’t trying to push that hardware to its limit, I also deeply appreciate the fact that people continue to create homebrew software for older systems. Creativity flourishing under constraints.

Couldn’t agree more. How can so much scientific research be funded by taxes, yet be hidden away from the general public through the racketeering of “academic publishers”?

Similarly, patents were meant to help individual inventors get compensation for their work without having to try to compete with larger and more established businesses. It has long since diverted from that function and only serves to keep important developments under corporate control. It is the same thing with stocks. Originally, they were intended to help fund the creation of small businesses. Now they are simply chips in a giant casino, like most “financial instruments”.

That would be nice! Personally, I would want it to be a juice bar instead of a cafe. I cannot stand the smell of coffee.

I sincerely wonder if we would be waiting forever when business practices are like that Lewis Mumford quote. I went with developing a sustainable approach to DIY because it seems like a proactive stance to take and many of the issues mentioned above are a result of excessive industrialization.

This is an excellent idea! Although I do not know much about them yet, it makes me think of PCs for People. I was saddened that OLPC never seemed to go anywhere.

I think we’ve already reached the point of diminishing returns in most areas of computing as it is now practiced. As far as video is concerned, I don’t know if it is just me, but 4K is usually pretty strange looking. I do not need to see every pore in someone’s face. My new slogan: “1080p, enough for me.” Hahah!

Glad to hear it! It always warms my heart when someone benefits from the research documents.

This is very close to the sort of thing I had in mind, but with chip fabrication. Preserving and recreating the old designs in ways that are sustainable and coming up with new ones that are within the home experimenter’s grasp.

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