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How ChromeOS Flex can make your old computer run like new again — and help save the planet too

For the past two years, my beloved MacBook Air, on which I have not only written countless pieces of journalism but also my doctoral dissertation, has been lying useless, collecting dust on a shelf.

This is the fate of most digital tech, isn’t it? Over time, updates and crashes can slow the engine down to a nearly unusable crawl. New features only come to the latest machines, and what used to be shiny and new is old.

But this week, the same rundown laptop of mine got a new lease of life. I installed a new offering from Google called ChromeOS Flex, which replaces Windows or Mac software with a lightweight operating system from Google. My once-weak MacBook has been transformed, becoming reasonably fast, easy to turn on, and even has more battery life.

This is a refreshing change from the seemingly planned obsolescence of most computers. And therein lies a lesson in how we think about digital tech – that it’s better to have new uses for it than to just throw it away when something newer comes along.

ChromeOS Flex essentially turns your device into a Chromebook, a product popular in the world of education that, unlike a traditional laptop, runs everything online through a web browser.

Turning on the computer, you will see familiar icons at the bottom of the screen where you can access Google services such as Gmail, Maps or Docs, but anything else you can access through a normal browser: websites , games, email, and more. .

That online-first model is its strength and limitation. This means that the traditional apps that you may know – Photoshop or the full version of Excel, for example – are not there, and your files, instead of being saved directly on the machine, are stored in the cloud.

But because it’s both online and such a lightweight operating system compared to Windows or MacOS, it boots quickly, requires less powerful hardware to run, and is constantly updated. Most of the things most people need to do on a computer – email, web browsing, chat or video conferencing – are still there, and work well.

It’s a bit like moving from a large SUV to a compact car: yes, your new ride is technically less capable in some ways, but it can also be more sleeker and more efficient.

It feels good to be able to take what was once a useless old laptop and put it to use again – in my case, to give it to my octogenarian dad so he can watch YouTube on a bigger screen.

But it also makes something useful that would otherwise go to waste. That’s a real problem with modern technology: that it doesn’t physically no longer useful, but turned out that way because, if you update to the latest version of its software – which you are told to do to ensure compatibility and security – it becomes very slow to use.

Shouldn’t there be a second life for tech as a matter of course – that there should be a certain way in which old technology can be revitalized and refreshed by using lighter, smaller its software?

Reasons are not just a commitment to never let anything go to waste. Old digital devices fill landfills, often wasting precious metals or putting toxins into the soil. Changing technology is one way to make it more sustainable, simply by making it last longer.

There’s an obvious business case here, too, and we shouldn’t be too Pollyanna about Google’s desire in all this. The company’s big fortune comes mostly from tracking its users and then serving them ads, and ChromeOS and Chromebooks are part of that project — if not through direct tracking, then simply by developing a relationship with the company. and its products.

Likewise, there’s something encouraging about ChromeOS Flex. Digital tech has produced a culture of disposability, of planned obsolescence. Apple want which buys a new iPhone and MacBook every few years, just like its competitors. That tendency has similar ecological costs, but in some ways it can also make the technology unusable; if an old laptop is obsolete, then the low-income family looking for one will have to look for something more expensive.

Alas, companies aren’t always used to doing things out of the goodness of their hearts, and that’s probably not Google’s intention here. But governments around the world have also helped create right to repair legislation – that is, allowing people to repair their own devices without special tools.

Big tech was opposed, but they caved in the face of regulation, and we’re better off for it.

Perhaps something similar happens when it comes to renewing and revitalizing old technology – that instead of just gathering dust, that old laptop on your shelf can be put to use again.

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