"Welcome to the trash-technology media lab," says James Wallbank, as we gingerly pick our way through the clutter of five-year-old Compaqs and Hewlett-Packard printers in the entrance lobby of the Redundant Technology Initiative's world headquarters. Inside the office, which is located in a converted warehouse in the down-at-the-heels city of Sheffield, England, a colleague wrestles on the carpet with a donated hard drive from an obsolete computer.
The Redundant Technology Initiative (RTI) is unlike any other media lab or Web-design center you're likely to come across, but its mission of bringing Internet access to the technologically excluded via junked PCs and free open-source software is inspiring similar movements across Europe.
Wallbank and RTI's main mission is to turn long-forgotten Pentium 75s, 286s, 386s, 680x0 Macs, Amigas, and Ataris into powerful Internet communicators for the technologically disenfranchised.
Already, RTI's Linux-powered trash technology is making a real difference to people's lives and livelihoods. RTI has enabled dozens of local people to publish their own Web pages on subjects as diverse as digital art, community centers, environmental protests, Web design, music, and pure mathematics — all at no cost. There's the unemployed designer who, with RTI's help, created a Web site to showcase his furniture and, within two months, had secured a licensing deal with a national office supplier. Or the politically active grandmother whose campaign on the Web helped turn the little-known problem of depleted uranium into a global concern.
"In less than two hours, we can teach anyone how to create a Web page using trash technology and free software like SimpleText or Notepad," says Wallbank. "We had to explain to one guy what the shift key was for. We taught a Kurdish refugee who couldn't speak English. Yet no one has failed to do it.
"Trash technology is available in your local area right now for no charge. It's the gift economy writ large."
While building a community-based network of media labs is RTI's primary goal, the group also functions as a cadre of ecologically aware digital artists who mold technowaste into multimedia sculptures to highlight the 3,000 PCs thrown out by British businesses every day.
And that statistic is likely to increase with memory-hungry, processor-thirsty releases like Windows XP. "There's a whole industry devoted to telling people that the PC on their desk is useless and needs to be replaced or upgraded. But the value in these things is what you do with them," says Wallbank. "Why should we need 32 megabytes to write a letter now when we didn't before?"
The (Accidental) Birth of a Low-Tech Network
Long-haired, bearded, and lanky, the 34-year-old Wallbank first whet his appetite for technology in the late 1980s while dabbling in something called FidoNet, a precursor to the Internet, where he was buzzed by the experience of peer-to-peer education. "I would ask technical questions and get essays back," he recalls. "Before long, I was answering those same questions for new users. I had gone from amateur to expert in just six months, not by taking a course but by tapping into the knowledge of existing users. It was a collective, decentralized learning process."
Wallbank spent the next few years as a university tutor but quit in 1997, disillusioned with "the way our education system makes students jump through hoops, rather than allow them to create their own unique visions." Excited by digital technology, but with very little money, he scoured small ads in his local paper and bought a 2 MB Amiga, a black-and-white security camera, and a video digitizer — all for the modest sum of $200. Before long, he was creating fuzzy pictures from big, chunky dots — works of digital art that he could show all around the world via the Net. "The whole point was that it was rough and low resolution, but I was in complete control," he says. "The computer is a factory, a tool of production that the individual worker can control."
Wallbank signed up for a glitzy digital-arts symposium in search of further inspiration. He got some, but not the kind he expected. "I saw these 'artists' boasting about the expensive technology that they had been given by XYZ Computer Company and decided that they weren't artists but product demonstrators," says Wallbank. "The role of the artist is to make sense of the way things really are or to comment on what's going on. Not to retreat into some kind of mythical cyberland or digital dream."
Wallbank's ideas began to take shape when he returned to Sheffield, a northern city decimated by the retreat of the British steel and coal industries, and one of the poorest regions in the European Union. "This city is on the ragged edge of the postindustrial world, and that got me thinking about getting involved with digital technology in the real world."
He dashed off an email to digital artist Heath Bunting, proposing a trash-technology media lab. Mistakenly believing that the initiative had already begun, Bunting forwarded the email to contacts around the world. Soon Wallbank was fielding responses from California to Croatia. "I didn't have the heart to tell them that it was still just an idea."
It was, however, the impetus he needed, and by November 1997, RTI was putting on its first exhibition, creating a primitive falling-snow video wall with 30 086s with 512K of RAM, nabbed mostly from dumpsters. By the end of the monthlong exhibition, visitors had donated another 230 PCs to the organization.
Later, at London's prestigious Tate Gallery, the group — which by then included four part-time workers plus Wallbank — streamed video on to 36 screens using old 486 technology and a couple of 300 MB hard disks. "The IT industry will tell you things like that can't be done," smiles Wallbank.
Trash Tech Goes Global
RTI's reputation is spreading. When Wallbank went to Croatia last year to address a conference, he was astonished to find that fellow trash technologists had translated his low-tech manifesto and were planning a second print run.
The group's plan to create a network of community-owned media labs using trash technology and open-source software has just been named Social Innovation of the Year by the Anita Roddick and Brian Eno-backed Institute for Social Inventions.
Yet by Christmas, Wallbank reckons RTI will have used up the last of its public funding. Unless the organization can find a partner, Wallbank's vision will never be realized.
"We're being given many more PCs than we have the resources to deal with. But the real waste is not the PCs — they'll end up getting junked somewhere along the line," he says. "The real waste is the human potential we're failing to exploit by not allowing people to learn new skills, to get on the Net, and to communicate with the rest of the world."
Ian Wylie (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in London. Contact the Redundant Technology Initiative by phone (44 114 249 5522) or email (email@example.com).