System Error


Desperate for computers for her cadre of young filmmaking students in Brooklyn, Trayce Gardner peppered the corporate world with letters last fall. J.P. Morgan, the international banking firm, came through with an offer of seven cast-off computers. All Gardner had to do, said Morgan’s public-relations people, was pick them up.

But that turned out not to be all the director of the Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center had to do, because the machines were garbage. None had CD-ROM drives, let alone software, so Gardner and her students bought drives and tinkered with the computers. When they finally got a couple of them working, the Melissa virus, which they say came with the donation, wiped out their work on Gardner’s film project, a drama called Billie’s Song. “As soon as we shut them down,” Gardner says, “Melissa went off.”

If J.P. Morgan himself were still alive, he might not have cared. The legacy of the Victorian monopolist’s fabulous art collection and Morgan Library has dimmed memories of what biographers have called his absolute lack of empathy for the poor (and memories of his horribly disfigured nose). Old J.P. didn’t care what the public thought, but the modern-day Morgan empire does—at least when the press comes calling.

Gardner’s letters complaining to Morgan proved futile, and so did phone calls. Last week, after the Voice called Morgan to ask about the situation, the company’s flacks called Gardner to tell her it will provide three more computers—but these will be refurbished and reconditioned by an outside company.

This bittersweet experience sheds light on an enormous problem: Tens of millions of discarded computers collect dust in corporate hallways and basements while tens of millions of schoolkids and people who can’t afford computers are crying to get on the information highway. What’s worse, a federal tax law crafted to spur donations has had no effect at all.

Since computers are becoming as essential as telephones or indoor plumbing, why keep people in the have-not category when so many perfectly usable computers are tossed away? Sister Sally Butler, director of the Project Teen Aid Family Services in Fort Greene, which has donated space to Gardner’s nascent filmmakers workshop, sees an analogy from decades ago, when people risked losing public assistance if the government found out that—heaven forbid—they had telephones. What the government failed to recognize was that as long as people didn’t have even basic services, they would have a hard time getting off welfare.

“Now,” says Sister Sally, “it’s really the computer that divides the poor from society.”

Morgan’s flacks point out the firm is not getting tax breaks for its donations of computers. But the fact is existing write-offs aren’t attractive enough. The ballyhooed 21st Century Classrooms Act of 1997 was supposed to offer tax breaks to companies to persuade them to turn over their outdated hardware.

John L. German, a Harvard Business School grad and Citibank veteran who now runs a New York-based operation called Non-Profit Computing, which tries to act as a clearinghouse for discarded computer hardware, says the 1997 law “has a long, sad history.” As written, the law didn’t provide realistic tax breaks and thus has resulted, says German, in scant donations. He recalls setting up a deal that was supposed to be the first use of the new law when it took effect in January 1998. “We had a seven-figure donation set up,” he says, “and then we sat down to look at the accounting. There was a whole room full of tax lawyers. And it became painfully obvious that there was no tax benefit.”

A revision of the law, called the New Millennium Classrooms Act, is wending its way through Congress now; it offers more incentives for companies to donate equipment.

Because of occasional news stories about the dedicated efforts of groups like German’s, the Detwiler Foundation, and the National Cristina Foundation, the public might believe computers are being recycled or refurbished. But the figures are pitifully small.

Just take one year. In 1998, according to figures from the National Safety Council’s Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report (PDF format), 20.6 million personal computers became obsolete in the United States, but only 11 percent of them, about 2.3 million, have been recycled.

If you compare the number of new machines shipped during the same year, 36.7 million, to the number recycled, recycling slips to about 6 percent. To put that into context, the percentage of new major appliances (like washing machines, water heaters, and air conditioners) to those recycled or donated during the same year was about 70 percent, the report says.

In the past 20 years, fewer than 2 million of the 300 million computer monitors sold in the United States were donated or recycled. By 2004, there will be more than 315 million obsolete computers in this country. And we’re not talking about Commodores or Amigas or Tandys. By 2007, nearly 500 million sophisticated machines will be considered obsolete.

What happens to them? A 1995 Tufts University study, cited by The New York Times, found that 75 percent of them wound up simply stockpiled in hallways, under Ping-Pong tables, in attics, or just pushed aside.

Meanwhile, German and others are trying to figure out how to dust off that hardware. A South Bronx company, Per Scholas, set up shop in a previously abandoned area and now hires local residents to refurbish computers for low-cost purchase by school districts and other entities that desperately need them.

Flacks for the 16,000-employee Morgan say the three replacement computers they promised Gardner will come from Per Scholas, but without the usual refurbishing cost of $250 per machine. Morgan’s spokespeople, stung by the possibility of criticism over what they describe as their attempt “to do something out of generosity,” insist they are “extremely proud” of the firm’s having donated a total of 1900 computers in the past nine years and having received “very few complaints.” Last year, the flacks say, the firm gave a $200,000 grant to Per Scholas to promote refurbishing.

That may be a better way for Morgan to display its generosity. Its original response to Gardner’s request for hardware gave little information about the computers and allowed just “two business days” for the nonprofit to either take the offer or be dropped from Morgan’s “waiting list.” Like other people running shoestring operations, Gardner thought she had no choice but to accept. Her complaints about the shoddiness of the hardware got no attention, she says, though Morgan’s people insist they went out of their way to help. Since they never responded to her in writing, it’s impossible to verify their account.

One of the Morgan computers donated to Gardner’s group was a Dell Pentium-90 that, six years ago, was considered a high-end machine. In its current state, its DOS software is corrupted and it won’t even boot up. The seven machines originally gathering dust over at Morgan are now gathering dust in Brooklyn.

John German applauds any company that gives computers away. German dreams of the day when he can arrange huge, orderly deals to transfer used technology to the masses. He sometimes wonders whether he should be swinging his ax in the Internet boom, like some of his B-school chums. But, he says, “the world doesn’t need another banker.”