Societal/cultural consciousness and change

XVII.1 January + February 2010
Page: 44
Digital Citation


Eli Blevis

You can see and touch and feel a physical thing. Oftentimes, you can understand from looking at a physical thing how it works. Moreover, it’s frequently—but not always—the case that your conceptual model of a physical thing corresponds to its actual operation and attributes, and we generally equate the absence of such correspondence to “bad” design [1]. It’s relatively easy to understand how to use a physical item and how to prolong its use and how to reclaim it for another purpose.

You can’t see, touch, or feel software. Oftentimes, it’s difficult to understand from looking at software how it works. Moreover, most people’s conceptual model of how software works differs from its actual operation and attributes, and we generally accept this difference as axiomatic to the very nature of software. It’s much harder to understand how to use things constructed from the material of software [2]. It’s much harder to understand how to prolong the use of things constructed from the materials of software and how to reclaim such things for new purposes.

In this column, I present four images of physical things I have chosen to represent the act of reclaiming. I reflect on the potential roles of digital materials in reclaiming.

Please don’t throw me away. (Figure A). Outside of a school of art and design, some large iron cylinders sit bearing the lines “Please Don’t THROW ME AWAY!” The fact that the cylinders appear to be in a 15-minute loading zone, ironically, adds to the urgency of the need to reclaim these materials for a new use.

Rainwater cistern reclaimed from an old water heater. (Figure B). An old water heater is reclaimed for use as a garden cistern with the addition of some PVC piping to attach it to the rain gutter of a house. The original outlet copper piping acts as a kind of fountain when this water-heater-turned-cistern overflows.

Rain-barrel garden and mini farm consultancy. (Figure C). A plastic rain barrel and various other presumably reclaimed apparatuses are used to create a public “mini farm” advertising a consultancy targeted at people who may want to know more about recent trends in urban agriculture.

Recycle bin decorated with its own contents. (Figure D). A recycle bin in a trendy district of Indianapolis is decorated with its own intended contents and signed by what appears to be a craftsperson or designer. As such, it integrates reclaimed material as affordance, both to provide a visual cue to intended use and to serve as public art.

It’s much harder to understand how to prolong the use of things constructed from the materials of software and how to reclaim such things for new purposes.


In manufacturing, the idea of a closed loop system—in which materials are reclaimed for reuse from products that have reached the end of their useful service life—is frequently described as key to environmentally sound practice. For example, Quariguasi Frota Neto and Bloemhof recently argue from evidence that reclaiming certain forms of electronics—especially mobile phones and computers—by means of remanufacturing and resale significantly increases eco-efficiency [3].

What is the role of digital materials—software and things driven by software and interaction design—in reclaiming things?

A few years ago, the large space required to run the Microsoft Vista operating system was a seemingly intentional source of obsolescence for many computers. That Vista has not been well received is an understatement. As I write this, Windows 7 appears to reverse Microsoft’s earlier strategy, allowing its customers to reclaim their existing computers from Vista-dom. My personal laptop and desktop machines have both been so rescued and I’m delighted. Interactivity and reliability are both greatly improved. Possibly, the lesson of Vista and Windows 7 will prove to be a trend—business strategists and software designers will target the ability to reclaim through software upgrades that improve quality without the need for new hardware as a core business model instead of using software materials as a tool to promote the premature obsolescence of physical materials. It’s encouraging to see the sustainable path may turn out to be the better business path in this case—one hopes for such a trend. Of course, by the time this article appears, the wider reception to Windows 7 will be better known. It also remains to be seen how many people will purchase new machines rather than install the newer operating system on their existing machines. Moreover, our optimism should be tempered by the fact that system requirements for Windows 7 are still much larger than for Windows XP, according to Microsoft’s site. Nonetheless, many machines that originally shipped with Windows XP will probably run Windows 7 adequately.

As interaction designers, we may not believe we are at the helm of the enterprise forces, which choose the disposal of old things and the consumption of new ones over reclaiming. We may hold more influence than we think. We can align ourselves with the folks who reclaim things as in the presented images. We can design interactivity to promote such thinking, making it easy to reclaim physical things by improving software and making it easier for consumers to install newer software themselves rather than buying new things in order to obtain newer software. We can persuade business strategists that increasing the quality of the amorphous software elements of products can build customer loyalty and increase the willingness to pay for software upgrades.

Therein lies a possibility for a better, more sustainable business model than the targeted obsolescence of physical things. The recent trend toward netbooks over more powerful laptops suggests that improvements to software quality and core functionality may trump the prior model of ever increasing demands for improved hardware performance and features.


1. The notion of the quality of mental mappings between conceptual models and operational ones is foundational knowledge in cognitive-science-oriented HCI and a matter of profound treatment by Don Norman and by others. See: Norman, D. The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books, 2002.

2. The notion of software as a material is foundational knowledge in design-oriented HCI and a matter of profound treatment, especially by Erik Stolterman and others. See: Nelson, H.G. and Stolterman, E. Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World—Foundations and Fundamentals of Design Competence. Educational Technology Publications, 2003.

3. Quariguasi Frota Neto, J. and Bloemhof, J.M. “The Environmental Gains of Remanufacturing: Evidence from the Computer and Mobile Industry.” ERIM Report Series Research In Management. 2009. See also: Nasr, N. and Thurston, M. “Remanufacturing: A Key Enabler to Sustainable Product Systems.” In Proceedings of the 13th CIRP International Conference on Life Cycle Engineering: 15–18, 2006. There is a broad literature on this topic.


Eli Blevis is an associate professor of informatics in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington. He is contributing editor for the Sustainably Ours forum. His primary research concerns are sustainable interaction design and design-oriented perspectives in the confluence of HCI and design.




UF1Figure A.

UF2Figure B.

UF3Figure C.

UF4Figure D.

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