How to Bridge the Digital Divide with Broken Computers

Earl Kaplan stands near a wood table scattered with assorted screwdrivers and a package of oatmeal cookies. He surveys the half-a-dozen other retirees, each one tinkering with a computer in various states of repair.

From across the small workshop, someone heckles Earl about the stress that comes with his job.

“I give ulcers; I don’t get them,” he says with mock sternness. “It’s better to give than to receive.”

There’s a palpable air of cheerfulness in the backrooms of The Exploration Station, a youth science museum and technology center in Grover Beach, California. Computer towers stand with their guts exposed; PC fans hum placidly; the refurbishers cajole each other lightheartedly. One computer lets out a long, impatient beep. Earl glares at it.

“Tell her about our lunch,” one man shouts over his shoulder.

“Oh! Our annual lunch? Our annual no-host lunch,” Earl says. “Once a year, we go out to Round Table Pizza and we vote ourselves a percentage raise.”

Everyone laughs. The joke, of course, is that a percentage raise of zero is still zero. Earl and company are unpaid volunteers—part of the 25 regular volunteers that keep The Exploration Station running. Almost all the volunteers are retired. Some have been donating their time here for more than a decade.

But the work is rewarding. Most of the volunteers at The Exploration Station collect, recycle, and refurbish computers as part of the organization’s Computers 4 Youth program. The goal: get technology into the hands of those who need it—and do it for free.

“People need computers,” says Deborah Love, the Exploration Station’s director. “We underestimated [the degree of need], because as computers started becoming cheaper and more user-friendly, we did anticipate that the need would taper off. It has not.”

Across the digital divide

Apple sold 237 million iPods, iPads, Macs, and other devices from January to September of last year. In 2005, US households threw away 304 million electronic devices, including computers; two-thirds of those devices still worked. But computers aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they seem—at least, not for everyone. Here’s where abundance butts heads with scarcity: 46% of the poorest households in America still don’t own a home computer.

Smartphones fill the gap for some people—about 40% of people in that same income bracket say they primarily go online on their phones—but it’s not quite the same. Students struggle to write an essay on a smartphone. Seniors usually learn to navigate the web on computers, not cell phones. Have you ever tried formatting a resumé on a phone? Plus, most jobs these days require basic computer skills and internet competency; Americans in the digital red often have trouble finding jobs. Getting computers into the hands of more people who need them is the first step towards bridging the information and communication technologies gap.

Over the last 14 years, The Exploration Station and Computers 4 Youth have given out nearly 4,000 computers across two neighboring counties—and not just to kids. They’ll give a free computer to anyone who really needs one.

“There is such a need with seniors, veterans, people re-entering the workplace,” Deborah says as Doris Gutierrez, a program administrator, flips through files containing the names of people on the waiting list. Currently, it’s about 40 names deep. “As they come in, we just line them up and that’s how we get them their computers,” Deborah adds.

And while the need it great, Deborah seems confident that every single person on that list will get a computer. It’s a struggle, but they’ve always been able to fill their orders, no matter how big (last year, they gave 30 computers to a local church hosting computer classes for the community). And they’ve always been able to do it on a budget of practically nothing.

How waste can fight want

Computers arrive at The Exploration Station because they’ve outlived their usefulness. Some unwanted, used computers are donated to the program by local families and businesses. Others come to the facility as e-waste. The Exploration Station is a state licensed e-waste collection site. Behind the building, volunteers welcome people with drop-offs and sort through the cast-off electronics. Old and broken computers are separated from the pile for dismantling or refurbishing.

“A lot of times, we get computers in that are fairly new,” says Earl. “You wonder why someone threw them away. And sometimes we’ll find out there’s a bad power supply on it, and we put a new power supply in. We’ve got tons of power supplies.”

Refurbishing is how broken becomes new again. Nothing goes to waste. Even an unrepairable PC will have some salvageable components in it. Everything else is recycled. Of course, it helps that PCs are relatively easy to open and take apart—no need for spudgers or pentalobe screwdrivers. They have an iFixit Bit Driver Kit, but they rarely have to use it.

“Almost everything can be done with one of these,” says a volunteer, thrusting an old Phillips screwdriver into the air.

On a good day, the volunteers can refurbish as many as 10 computers. Then, each gets a new operating system, open-source software, and some educational games. After that, it goes to a new home.

Final cost of refurbishment to The Exploration Station: Zero dollars, zero cents. But, to the recipient, a refurbished computer means so much more—it’s a gateway to information, to education, and to the workplace.

That feeling of gratification is why the volunteers at The Exploration Station do what they do—and why they do it cheerfully. Each computer they refurbish is one fewer sent to a landfill. Each computer they give away will make someone’s life just a little bit better.

Computer refurbishment at the exploration station

Deborah stands in the lobby of The Exploration Station. In front of her, interactive science exhibits dot the room. Giant models of Saturn and Jupiter hang from the ceiling. Down the hall, a volunteer teaches a young woman how to use her new computer. Deborah smiles.

“We’re very happy to be doing what we’re doing.”

Edit on January 30: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that 304 million tons of electronics were thrown away in 2005, instead of 304 million electronics. Our apologies; thank you to a careful reader who noticed the error.