Essays on Technology and Culture

Mending and Making is Better than Ending

On Wired, Clive Thompson writes about the need for a “fixer movement”, in contrast to the recent rise of the Maker Movement.

This would be a huge cultural shift. In the 20th century, U.S. firms aggressively promoted planned obsolescence, designing things to break. Buying new was our patriotic duty…

I’m unsure how well the Maker Movement has caught on outside of the geekier of circles. It’s a concept that intrigues me, coming from an adolescence as part of the Boy Scouts, [1] and envy of people who know how to do stuff with their hands. Like any good larval geek, I played with electronics kits, took apart alarm clocks that I couldn’t reassemble, and generally wondered how the heck all this crap we use works. I’m from a generation that could fix or upgrade computers when they grew aged. Of the various personal computers I owned, it was my first, a 486, that saw the longest time in action, lasting almost seven years before the RAM sockets broke. [2]

A fixer movement has the potential to change our relationship with technology. The level of agency we can get from learning how to add life to the gadgets we own and not throwing them away is beneficial to a greater understanding of technology’s role in our Thompson mentions in the article. Things start to fall down for me, just a bit, when I read his description of a “Fixer’s Collective” in Brooklyn: “A few feet away, a trio of people are elbow-deep in a vintage VCR, and there’s another team performing surgery on a lava lamp… As I watch for three hours, the fixers get everything up and running (except the lava lamp).”

While the article starts by depicting someone trying to fix a toaster oven, the articles Thompson chooses to mention make me think of the “Fixer’s Collective” as more kooky Brooklynite kitsch than passion for understanding gear. Precious few of us have need to fix a VCR in 2013, unless you’re really into grainy, low-res, pan-and-scan movies. It’s the sort of preciousness that also infects the Maker movement, with videos about hand-carved spoons on Boing Boing being the public depiction of something that is much bigger and more compelling. Thankfully, the “Fixer’s Collective” experience emboldened Thompson to tackle repairing a five-year old Dell laptop. It’s a story drives the potential of the fixer movement home.

If only everything were as serviceable. There’s a (valid) crack against Apple products, with their unwillingness to provide service manuals, and fetish for thinner and increasingly closed hardware summed up best in one quote. “Just to get an iPad open, Wiens [of iFixIt] had to make a rice-filled pillow that he could heat up and lay on top of the tablet to gently loosen the adhesive.” Considering that I’m writing this up on an iPad, that quote really hits home. Apple products have the benefit of longer usable lifespans than comparable hardware offerings, and a network of retail stores to provide fixes, but we shouldn’t need to rely on that. Considering that in 2005 I managed to replace the battery on my 3rd generation iPod (twice) with a guitar pick and some patience, it’s not a long shot to think we’re moving the wrong way.

The are two obstacles that a fixer movement needs to overcome. The is the fear ordinary people have of diving into the guts of their gadgets. The second is the sense that their time and effort are worth more than the cost of a replacement product. I expect that we’ll get most of the way to the latter by doing the former. Even the hardcore geeks I know swear by online guides like iFixIt for stuff as simple as RAM upgrades and iPhone screen replacements. I can also see this as an adjunct to Patrick Rhone’s no-grade. Squeezing all the lifespan we can out of our expensive gadgets, learning how to use them better, and learning how to fix problems ourselves—these all put control of our technology back into our hands, where it belongs. Start learning now.

  1. Where I earned Merit Badges for leatherwork, wood carving, and basket weaving over subsequent summers. I set the bar high for myself.  ↩

  2. It trundled through when the computer repair shop installed shims to keep the RAM in contact with the sockets until we finally replaced the machine.  ↩