Is the Windows Recycle Bin Subtle Social Engineering?

If your PC runs the Windows operating system, you are intimately familiar with the recycle bin. The recycle bin has been around since Windows 95. It essentially does the same thing as the Mac trash can. The question is this: why did Microsoft choose the recycle paradigm rather than the trash paradigm? Was it a subtle form of social engineering?

It is no secret to anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s that consumer recycling was all the rage back then. School kids were regularly taught that they could save the planet by separating paper, glass, and plastic for curbside recycling programs. In fact, kids are still taught that today. But back in the eighties, social engineering in the recycling arena was just getting underway.

The Same Basic Functionality

While Microsoft decided to go with the recycle bin, Mac users had already been used to the trash can. They had been using it since the eighties. Files and documents they didn’t want could be dragged and dropped into the can with very little effort. The can could be emptied with the click of a button. However, users could also go into the can to retrieve files they decided to keep.

Microsoft’s recycle bin offers the same basic functionality. You can put things into it by dragging and dropping. You can also right-click unwanted files and documents and send them to the recycle bin from a drop-down menu. You are free to empty the recycle bin or review its contents at any time.

Even Linux operating systems offer this function. Some distros (Linux distributions) use the trash can while others use a recycle bin. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind why a particular distribution would use one or the other.

Proposing a Different Mindset

Given that almost all major operating systems for the desktop offer some sort of function for deleting unwanted files, there doesn’t seem to be a particular reason to represent that function with either a trash can or recycle bin. Still, both options represent an easy way to deal with unwanted files in a graphical user environment.

That brings us back to the question of why Microsoft chose the recycle bin. Perhaps they were proposing a different mindset. That would not be unusual given the history of residential recycling in this country.

The Recycling Symbol Is Meaningless

If you had to choose a symbol to represent residential recycling, what would it be? It would probably be that three-arrow symbol with the number we frequently see on plastic bottles and food containers. Did you know the symbol is meaningless from a practical standpoint?

According to Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics, the symbol was invented in the 1970s as a way to quickly identify the type of plastic a manufacturer might be dealing with. A plastic labeled #1 is a different polymer compared to one labeled #7. But the existence of the symbol doesn’t mean a particular plastic is generally recyclable.

The arrow and number symbol were originally intended to help manufacturers. Pro-recycling groups glommed on to it as a symbol to encourage residential recycling. Their efforts were so effective that the symbol became synonymous with anything and everything related to recycling.

Perhaps that’s why the Windows OS features a recycle bin rather than a trash can. Maybe Microsoft decided, back in the nineties, to help promote the recycling mindset by replacing the Mac trash can paradigm with a new recycle bin alternative. And if so, do their efforts amount to a subtle form of social engineering. It is something to think about.

Jennifer Winget

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