Disassembly lines, social networks and software

Whenever I travel I tend to go through a goodly supply of books, papers and magazines. Yesterday was no different. And quite often, while I’m doing this, I tend to collect scraps of paper, articles that I’ve torn out of the newspapers and magazines in order to carry less.

Later, when I’m awake doing that early morning jet lag thing, I tend to read the ripped-out articles a second time and then dispose of them in the hotel room. That’s what I’m doing right now.

One such article was entitled How to destroy brand-new automobiles. Taken from the Wednesday-Thursday edition of the Wall Street Journal Europe, the article dwelt on the challenges Mazda had in getting rid of $100m worth of brand-new cars, in order to avoid the risk of brand damage via the Katrina car approach.

One particular paragraph really got to me:

It took more than a year to devise a plan that satisfied everyone. The City of Portland wanted assurance that nearly 5,000 cars’ worth of antifreeze, brake fluid and other hazardous goop wasn’t mishandled. Insurers covering Mazda’s losses wanted to be sure the company wouldn’t resell any cars or parts, thereby profiting on the side. So every steel-alloy wheel has to be sliced, every battery rendered inoperable and every tire damaged beyond repair. All CD players must get smashed.

I remembered the same thing happening during the run-up to Year 2000, when many institutions were junking computers in reasonable working condition, but weren’t able to donate the equipment to anyone or anything because of the insurance implications, or weren’t willing to donate because of the putative risk to the brand.

It just feels wrong, trashing something that still works and that still has value to someone. There is something weird about making sure someone else cannot extract any utility from a resource. It’s like putting poison in butter mountains in order to prevent someone from even thinking of doing something with the surplus.

I’ve spent a lot of time in charity shops and remaindered book sellers, and I had the same feeling when I saw covers purposely mangled (to denote remaindering). What is it about us, what is it that makes us do things like this?

And it’s not just physical resource. Sometime over the last thirty years, I worked somewhere where there was something really strange in the middle of an open-plan floor: a bunch of desks that had been chained off from the rest, with the equivalent of police tape across every possible entrance to that particular cubicle desert. Why? None of the profit centres wanted that space. So the people in Facilities figured that nobody should be able to use the space. Until that day, it was a useful ad-hoc meeting area, a place where informal meetings and workshoips took place. But the gods of Facilities decreed No Tickee No Washee.

All this made me think. For some classes of software, we need to write software that will last 200 years, as Dan Bricklin suggested. But that is not all. There are other classes of software, other classes that require different treatment. We also need to write software that does not damage “the environment” when we want to stop using it, for whatever reason.

We need to build applications where the cost of decommissioning is at least as low as the cost of commissioning them, to paraphrase Clay Shirky. [I quote his “when the cost of repair is equal to or less than the cost of damage, all is well” idea quite regularly.]

Software needs disassembly lines.

One more thing. The Mazda incident also brings out the issues and costs involved in dealing with toxic substances. I have this nagging feeling that we have something similar in social networks, from a privacy angle. Over time, social networks collect “toxic” or “hazardous” information, information that has to be disposed of carefully and securely. What happens, for example, if one of the major electronic social networks goes bust? Who makes sure that customer data is dealt with securely? We already have examples of secure disposal of physical information and of physical media.

The treatment of digital assets is still in its infancy, and we have a lot to learn about it. Like who looks after this blog when I die? Does it die with me? Should it?

2 thoughts on “Disassembly lines, social networks and software”

  1. to your last point – maybe by the time you die your decision process will be sementically derivable from all the digital assets you leave behind and the digtal representation of you will be able to continue blogging (or whatever it is we then do to socialise our thoughts). the world would be a lesser place without at least an approximation of your ramblings, so I hope, for you at least, this reality comes to pass.

    dancing at the end of time

  2. we Europeans seem to not care about waste, just send it to a third world country is pretty much the attitude. I am American, living in France, and have not lived in the US for nearly 20 years so I don’t know how folks there act, but I can’t see how they would be much different.

    Example of junk, I worked for Microsoft for about 9 years. One country changed their phone system and ended up throwing away working telephones; working but not compatible with the new phone system.

    I suppose we take some porzac and stop caring.

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