Fixing technology graphic

The new DIY culture: taking back control of technology

Remember the days when we tinkered with our cars and repaired our electronics? Today’s devices, in contrast, are ‘black boxes’: to be admired, not repaired. However, this attitude is starting to change.

The Apple iPhone 6s packs an impressive array of new technology and some incredible engineering into its brushed metal case. The company’s latest flagship phone is almost waterproof; with a thin adhesive rubber gasket sealing the case’s two halves together. The device’s battery is slightly smaller than previous models, the internal speaker reworked and some space has been created for the device’s new ‘Taptic Engine’ by moving some components around.This is essential information for anyone wanting to work on or fix the new device, but we didn’t learn any of it from Apple. In fact, the information is provided by one of the many online sources that specialise in breaking down new devices to shine a light on these hidden developments.

Silicon seals, a strong adhesive and the need for a plethora of expensive tools make dismantling a phone impossible for anyone but an experienced digital engineer to tackle - and that’s just how Apple wants it. Only the highly skilled could put the phone back together and even if they did manage it, the manufacturer’s warranty would be void. In other words: DIY repairs are out, expensively repairing or replacing a broken device is in.

Apple isn’t alone in making its devices fiendishly difficult to access. In fact, it’s becoming difficult for anyone but professionals to get inside our phones, cars, TVs and household appliances. There are many reasons for this - from aesthetics and fashion, to manufacturing processes and security. But is it really necessary for technology to become ever harder to fix, and what can we do to wrestle back control of our possessions?

A question of style

Perhaps nowhere has technological development been more incredible than in mobile phones. Launched in 1983, the Motorola 8000x was the world’s first commercially available mobile phone. Retailing for $3,995 and weighing in at almost a kilogram, it could store just 30 numbers, while a full battery charge would power a measly 30 minutes of talk time. Compare that to modern mobiles capable of storing whole shelves worth of books, images and music; the advance is incredible. A status symbol for City boys and celebrities in the 1980s, when put side by side with modern smartphones the brick-like Motorola is almost comical in its size and feeble capabilities.

Comparing old and new phones is a good illustration of how our seemingly insatiable appetite for new technology is often driven by fashion and style. It’s not just phones, but cars, computers and even household appliances that are dictated by style, and it’s this drive for smaller, sleeker and more aesthetically pleasing devices that makes working on them difficult.

It’s a situation that frustrates Nick Grey, an award-winning designer and founder of Gtech: “I get irritated the same as other engineers when manufacturers produce disposable ‘commodity’ products,” he says. “In some ways this approach has been influenced by retail trends where new products are wanted each season.”

Grey calls this industrial short-termism, an example of where designers are concerned more with the look of a product than its function - preferring their products to have smooth clear lines because they ‘hate visible screws’.

“They don’t make time to design products with in-home performance, durability and serviceability,” says Grey.

Lifting the lid

Sometimes products are designed to be difficult to access, sometimes it’s a by-product of how they are made and engineered. Perhaps nowhere do owners feel more disempowered these days than when lifting the bonnet of a modern car. Most people would struggle to name most of the engine’s parts, or even be able to spot them under the engine cover.

In this case, it’s not fashion or design, but about the way modern technology is manufactured that makes it harder to gain access to our technology, explains Steve Rendle,commissioning editor at Haynes Publishing: “Almost all cars today are manufactured using robotised production methods in order to reduce costs and improve efficiency. This means that designers often place a greater emphasis on unitary construction and ease of assembly than perhaps on ease of maintenance.”

Automated production can cut down on waste, overheads and salaries, but their pinpoint accuracy and ability to contort themselves into intricate spaces and exert tremendous forces can makes access to some robot-built technology difficult.

Interestingly, manufacturers like Gtech, Dyson and others recognise the importance of maintenance, building products with a modular approach that means components can be isolated, replaced and repaired easily. Grey claims that the average person could replace the main chassis of one of his Gtech cleaners in less than a minute. Designing technology that is fixable is more complicated, and often makes these devices more expensive. It can also affect the bottom line of businesses keen to take their slice of the repair market or eager for us to purchase replacements.

Planned obsolescence

Fashion and our seemingly insatiable desire for new technology is, in part, created by the huge marketing machine that accompanies any new product launch. The average smartphone is kept for two years, with laptops and tablets staying useful for slightly longer at around three years (a figure set to drop). After this time, the devices may be rendered obsolete because they can’t run the latest software, the memory or storage capacity isn’t enough or the manufacturer decides not to offer support or provide parts.

Kay-Kay Clapp, community manager at iFixit, one of the web’s most prominent sources for information and how-to guides for modern technology, explains what’s happening in the tech world: “We’re seeing a lot of manufacturers actively working to shut down independent repair businesses by refusing to sell them service parts.”

It’s a system where manufacturers are actively attempting to stop third parties working on their products. “When manufacturers limit repairs to ‘approved’ repair shops or official repair centres, that doesn’t bode well for the future of repair. The more barriers to repair, the more likely people are to trash their broken stuff instead of trying to fix it,” Clapp claims.

It’s a viewpoint Rendle agrees with, noting how this works in the automotive industry: “It is in the manufacturers’ interests to keep a car within its dealer network for servicing, as this will provide revenue, and should also encourage brand loyalty and improve the prospect of future sales.”

In reality, there are some genuine reasons why manufacturers may wish to control the secondary market, and restrict the ability of others to work on devices. Security issues, availability of parts and the necessary technical competence to fix devices may mean only approved engineers are capable of fixing our devices. But, according to Clapp, it’s a situation we should challenge not merely accept.

Counting the cost

As individuals and as a society, Clapp claims that we are at risk of living in fear of our devices: “Most of us fear that electronics repair is beyond our ability. This feeling has been deeply ingrained by a throwaway society that touts ending as better - and easier - than mending.”

The good news is that there is help out there. Around the world, collective movements like Repair Cafes are trying to break down the barriers that deter people from working on their own devices. These movements are often ‘open-source’, freely sharing information and advice across communities, both online and in the ‘real’ world.

Started by Dutch sustainability campaigner Martine Postman in 2009, Repair Cafes are trying to breathe new life into old technology. There are now more than 800 Repair Cafes operating on all continents. Members of the public can turn up with their broken devices and help each other to fix them. It’s an inspiring experience for many that, according to the movement, “teaches people to see their possessions in a new light”.

Repair Cafes are the physical embodiment of the collaborative and cooperative culture that exists on the web. For almost every device or technology there is a plethora of online resources available, many of which are provided absolutely free by volunteer contributors.

One of those is the online resource iFixit. The movement began when a few intrepid digital explorers decided to post simple descriptions of how to fix common technology. Things have snowballed since, and the website now posts constant updates on how to tackle complex tech repairs on the most recent devices. The website is free and “for the first time, it was easy for someone with no technical background or experience to take apart and fix a device,” says Klapp.

There are just two examples of thousands that show how networks of like-minded individuals can share information and support each other to fix their devices. It takes the technology outside the control of manufacturers and makes the knowledge of how to repair it freely available to all.

Inspiring a generation

Britain has an incredible history in product design and innovation. Getting to grips with technology, understanding how it works - and more importantly where it can be improved - also inspired one of the UK’s most famous entrepreneurs, James Dyson. “When I was younger I would dismantle everyday objects to try to understand how they work. The mechanics, the design, the electronics,” he says. “Understanding why everyday products don’t work properly is key to designing something better.”

By reverse-engineering technology, engineers can spot flaws. From the wheelbarrow to the vacuum cleaner, it’s this desire to understand how technology works that has inspired Dyson. He is one of many engineers and entrepreneurs who have begun their experimentations by working on their own technology - and he’s keen to see young people have the opportunity to do so as well. In public, Dyson is an outspoken supporter for increased investment in engineering and technology; his own company recently announced a £1bn investment in research and development.

Fixing our own devices, however, does more than meet a practical purpose and inspire budding entrepreneurs; there is a deeper, more philosophical point to it too. Repairing modern technology helps to demystify it. “If you don’t understand how technology works then you don’t control it; it controls you.” It’s a bold statement, but Eben Upton, founder and CEO of Raspberry Pi, is happy to back it up.

Launched in 2012, the Raspberry Pi packs a complete and fully operational computer into a package the size of a credit card. There is no case, and there are no frills - this is digital technology stripped back to its basics. And it has caught the imagination of people everywhere.

Inspired by the home-computing explosion of the 1980s that created thousands of bedroom programmers (many of whom would go on to create some of the world’s most innovative and successful videogames), Upton and his team hope for a repeat. “The idea with the Raspberry Pi was to create something which provides young people today with the same sort of cheap, robust, fun, programmable hardware that I had back in the 1980s,” he explains.

Those using the device have created local coding clubs and are building vibrant online communities who take the technology and do things that nobody could have imagined. “We hope (and already see some signs) that it will rekindle a level of interest in programming among today’s young people,” he adds.

Hope for the future

Learning how technology works is also environmentally responsible. Our current levels of consumption are rapidly depleting natural resources. The scale of the problem is astounding; the United Nations University estimates that more than 40 million tonnes of electronic devices are discarded every year.

Even when devices won’t function any more, they still have a use, and it’s people like Sherry Huss, a co-founder of Maker Faire, who help people to find it. Started in 2005, the Maker movement celebrates craft, sharing this knowledge with like-minded individuals who, using discarded or redundant devices, breathe new life into old technology.

As well as a love for craft, the Maker Faire movement has a strong environmental purpose, with nothing wasted: “If something can be re-used or repurposed instead of being sent to landfill, you can bet that Maker will find a way to make that happen.”

Understanding how our devices work makes financial, environmental and philosophical sense, but it also takes time and commitment to learn. In return, we are rewarded with gaining control of the technological cocoon around us. It’s a powerful position to be in and it’s a power we shouldn’t want to give up too easily.

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