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E-waste and the promise of Persistent Technology

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


The Persistent Technology revolution was a promise unfulfilled.

Technology was liberation. It provided access to education. It connected the world. It created systems that freed us from the harshest injustices in life. That, at least, was the promise uttered by breathless technocrats as they pocketed unimaginable profits from glorified toys for the rich and built ever-widening gaps between those who have, and those who have nothing.

The microprocessor was the equalizer. When our computers, cars, toasters, and power tools were all controlled by by the same underlying architecture, hardware becomes trivial. Upgrade the operating system and your tablet becomes an entirely new device. Continuously improving software would save us from the scourge of electronic waste–the piles of obsolete circuitry slowly leaching metals into the earth or releasing uncounted hydrocarbons into the air as they burn. The “cloud” would be freedom.

Companies began capitalizing on the nascent demand for “Persistent Technologies”, promising cars that would last 20 years and appliances that would outlive their owners (readers of a certain age might smugly note that that kind of longevity existed long before the consumer electronics revolution). Persistent Technology was heralded as the most important environmental innovation in half a century. People lined for weeks to be the first to receive the Forever Phone. The Tesla Infinite had a backorder of over 350,000 units. Persistent Technology would liberate the public from the expense of disposable electronics and save the world from the environmental disaster that those throw-away devices triggered. 

It was a fad.

Seemingly overnight, hardware companies became software companies. When your product is supposed to last forever, your profit has to come from somewhere else. The price of upgrades climbed ever higher, locking customers into their current service profiles. This would have been fine, for the most part. Once you have a working washing machine, who cares if the interface is out of date? It still washes your clothes just fine.

Updates were the problem. Back in the day, we called this phenomenon “planned obsolescence”–mandatory updates so bloated that users needed to buy new hardware just to keep running functionally the same software. Persistent Technology was a direct response to this exploitative practice.

When every company is a software company, the software license is the thing. Thanks to the third iteration of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, users were effectively locked out of their own hardware. They couldn’t refuse updates, revert to old updates, or add aftermarket open-source operating systems. If it bore the Certified Persistent label, its protection was ironclad.

The thing about programmers is that many of them (myself included) are mediocre, at the best of times. Many years ago, I attended a talk by Tim Berners-Lee where he bemoaned the end of the really tight, stellar programming culture. When every bit counts, every line of code has to matter. Once computers advanced to the point when where processing power was functionally infinite, code got sloppy. Code has been getting sloppier for a long time.

It’s nobodies fault. It’s simply the Law of Legacy Systems. New features are built on top of old architecture. Every new layer requires increasingly more complex code to interface with older layers. The Law of Legacy Systems is the reason why the highlands of Papua New Guinea has faster, more reliable internet than Silicon Valley, the aging heart of America’s tech economy. Silicon Valley is legendary for it’s slow, erratic, inconsistent internet. This is why the African tech centers have eclipsed their US counterparts. The core of their infrastructure is newer, faster, and more adaptable. They aren’t saddled with 1960’s era legacy systems that yes, even now, still support some of California’s critical telecom networks. Unfortunately, to abandon legacy systems or legacy software and build entirely modern systems from scratch would bankrupt most tech companies, and they would still be out-of-date within a few years.

So code bloats like a gas expanding to fill the total volume of its container, hardware grinds to a halt, and our junkyards are full of 3-year-old appliances built to last forever. In a lot of ways, that’s even worse than disposable electronics. Persistent Technology can’t be recycled or reconstituted. It can only decompose.

It wasn’t all bad. Persistent Technology renewed the public’s interest in dealing with the unceasing flood of electronics waste and served as a perfect example as how toxic DMCA3 really is. The 5 year crash in commodities like gold, nickel, silver, and rare earths, in anticipation of a major decline in demand, helped kill the latest iteration of the deep-sea mining industry, which was, if nothing else, personally satisfying.

In the end, the promise of Persistent Technology was just another entry on the long list of corporate greenwashing, as quickly forgotten as it arose.


On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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