Essays on Technology and Culture


The new, discounted iMac has the RAM soldered to the logic board. The Surface 3 is nigh-unrepairable.. We’re increasingly being locked out of the inside of our computer hardware, and there’s precious little we can do about it. These are symptoms of the appliance-ificiation of technology, which is itself a symptom of mass-adoption of technology by ordinary people instead of hobbyists. A personal computer is more akin to a refrigerator, or a washing machine to many users. They want something that works, something that’s in their price range, and they don’t want to have to open it up to fix it when it breaks.

Considering that so many technology people like myself came up in an era where owning a computer was both a mark of the sort of person we were and required learning the ins-and-outs of computer maintenance, this shift has unmoored more than a few. Witness the gnashing of teeth from the iFixIt team with each, increasingly unfixable revision of Apple hardware, or Andy Ihnatko’s frustration about the retina MacBook Pro’s omitting the Ethernet port. [1] I’ve been bitten by the unfixable nature of Apple hardware twice in recent months. My iPhone 5S was completely replaced twice. One due to a broken screen, which on the 5S can no longer be swapped out. Second, due to a fault with the vibrator motor in my replacement.

The truth is, annoying as it may be, people like us are increasingly the minority. Most people want their tech to be small, light, and cheap like kitchen appliances. Most people don’t care about upgradability and repairability. How many people fix their own cars—or even change their own oil? Even in the enterprise world, it’s easier and faster for IT departments to swap out broken hardware than fix it. And if “BYOD” becomes common, the onus will be on the end user who will just replace it. Laziness will win, at least as long as typical consumer priorities remain the same.

It’s something that Phonebloks and Google’s Project Ara miss, even beyond the technical issues of speed and power consumption. If the priorities of users are cost and size, it can become more expensive to work in expandability and repairability over a closed system. At the very least, it’s more parts that could break. The priorities of hackers, tech hobbyists, and others who bemoan the appliance-ificiation of technology are different than the priorities of the growing mass market. Either their priorities will have to change, or we will. My money isn’t on the former.

  1. In fairness to Andy, he considered Ethernet to be a “Professional” feature, and the rMBP has “Pro” in the name. He doesn’t make the same complaint about the Air, which is the mass-market Apple laptop.  ↩