In the late 1800s, the streets of major cities were sometimes knee-deep in horse ... er, droppings. More people meant more transport meant more horses meant more end product. The smell was an annoyance, the cleanup was a big expense, the flies were a serious health threat. Only the technological revolution of the automobile saved us.
In the early 2000s, the homes of America face a similar threat, this time from another kind of, well, droppings: tens of millions of unwanted and unnecessary AOL and MSN CDs. Call it solid spam.
Technology could save us again, but only if we ignore the marketing blather of AOL and MSN.
Way back in the mid-1990s you needed a diskette or CD to get on the Internet, because you needed software that would dial up an Internet connection phone number, e-mail software to see and respond to messages and Web browser software to view Web pages. The CD held that software.
For years, computers have come equipped with standard dialing, e-mail, and browser software. CDs are no longer necessary. So why are we still inundated with new CDs, packaged with magazines, dropped in our shopping bags, popping out of our mailboxes, falling on us at video stores, copy shops and post offices?
Because the two biggest brands - AOL and MSN - don't want you to use standard Internet software. They want you to have, install and stick with their own particular software. They claim that their software is easier and better than the standard stuff.
Funny thing: They don't mention that using their software will make it harder for you to switch to other Internet access providers. Other, lower-cost Internet providers.
AOL is the worst offender here, with Instant Messaging software that refuses connection to other IM systems and e-mail software that won't cooperate with standard e-mail systems. But MSN is headed in the same direction, away from standards.
So they'll keep shoveling CDs onto the streets and into the mailboxes, hoping you'll insert one into your computer and catch the nonstandard Internet. And our desks and closets and landfills will continue to choke on CD trash while postal workers will suffer from the pointless bulk mail (some AOL CDs now come in metal cases!)
How can we fight the CD plague?
One way is to join with NoMoreAOLCDs.com. The guys behind this site ask you to mail them your AOL CDs. When they get a million, they intend to dump them at AOL headquarters in a "put a cork in it" statement.
Another way would be to tell AOL and MSN to put more worthwhile stuff on the CDs. The latest AOL CD I just received, for example, has nearly 300 megabytes of blank space. That could have held hundreds of classic books as e-texts. Or it could have contained first-aid information, government databases, encyclopedias, all sorts of things. Then the CDs would be worth keeping. If AOL had a clue about the life-and-death struggle it is in with Microsoft's MSN, those megabytes would contain free software such as OpenOffice.org that would eat into Microsoft's software monopoly.
Ever considered collecting the CDs? Then you might be happy to see new ones arrive. There are several thousand variations that AOL has emitted since the beginning (I don't know how many CDs MSN has pushed out in its shorter lifetime) and the Internet plays host to folks who swap and store their way to complete catalogs of the line. Just search on "AOL CDs" at Google or other search engine. Or check eBay. That's right. People pay for CDs. "Sparky" has a site, www. aolcollecting.com/, and offers a book on the subject.
There's an AOL CD museum at http://go.to/aolcd and another at www.aolmemorabilia.com. For the ultimate in boredom, there's even a fellow who has trained a Webcam on his stack of collected AOL CDs. And at www.afractalreality.com/ufaolcdgraveyard.htm you'll find an "AOL CD Graveyard," though to me it looks more like the CD afterlife.
Maybe you should reuse the CDs, but not as CDs. Probably you've heard the joke about - or seen people actually employ - AOL CDs as coasters. They're not great for that, what with the hole in the middle, and they are pretty poor Frisbees too, not having the aerodynamics to fly straight, and having a tendency to slice or shatter on impact.
But there are lots of other places an AOL CD can contribute to society. The NoMoreAOLCDs.com site has photos of a few, including clocks and lamps. Several people are working on solar collectors that use AOL CDs as reflectors. A site called UltimateChaos had an AOL CD invention competition.
Finally, you can recycle AOL and MSN CDs, as well as other CDs and DVDs, through companies such as Lacerta.com and GreenDisk.com.
In response to the NoMoreAOLCDs.com drive, AOL says people are always welcome to mail back their CDs so AOL can recycle them. But paying to return something you didn't want is adding injury to insult.
Phillip Robinson's e-book, "1000 Free Uses For An AOL/MSN CD," is available free at philliprobinson@openminds- .us. People offering suggestions should say whether they wish to be credited in it.