Some consumers itch for whatever is new, but many of us just want to keep what we have for as long as possible.
I have an iPhone 8, which is paid for and I will keep it for as long as I can. But things begin to happen. For instance, I can’t charge it now unless I prop the wire at an angle into the port. And when it comes to computers and devices, eventually this old operating system won’t work efficiently with the new one. The replacement is always necessary. It’s just a question of how long you try to hold out.
But some things just crash and force our hand. Appliances seem destined to fail with frequency. Coffee makers and toasters live hard at the Mitchams, giving out with some regularity. An appliance company doesn’t want to be labeled as shoddy, but there’s also an incentive not to be too sturdy and keep people from buying replacements — something referred to as “planned obsolescence.” Companies need things to break and for you not to fix it when it happens. I’ve never met a toaster repairman, though maybe some of you know how. But I figure most people just replace a broken toaster with another cheap bread burner.
But as you go further up the technology food chain, quick replacements are less viable. That’s obvious with our vehicles and machinery. When it comes to big-ticket items, we generally need repairs, not replacements. Think about how technology has altered auto repair work. Vehicles are changing under the hood and at the dashboard. And the trusted, old repairman has seen the game change as newer vehicles are road computers on wheels. I know there’s good and bad in this, just like in most things. But one thing this truly does is mess up the tinkerer. I remember how our neighbor, “Mr. Joe,” was always outside working on his cars when I was a kid. That’s a hobby for many, a practical one, too.
But the shift to computerized repair creates a more specialized and limited pool of qualified people. That’s true for farm machinery, too. And as technology increases, repair work is more reliant on proprietary information. For instance, a tractor company might not want its customers to understand the software running its tractors, because it wants to control the repair process and profit off it. But that also drives people to seek out older models that can be fixed without outside help. We see that happening now.
So, I’m in favor of “right-to-repair” laws that would require major companies to make their parts, tools and information available to consumers and repair shops in order to keep devices from ending up in the scrap heap. Yes, this could damage the bottom line for some businesses who want to make people buy new products, not fix old ones. But think of the bigger picture and all the waste we have. Inhibiting repair work is not good for consumers, but it’s also not good for earth. It leads to more waste and pollution.
This gets me thinking about the bigger picture, too. There’s a paradox in technology. We see human know-how advance with the constant promise of this or that task made easier. Meanwhile, life gets more complicated. Technology reduces necessary human energy to accomplish a task. But in doing so, we typically give up a little personal control in exchange for someone else’s greater know-how. You get a car that can talk to you, that can sense dangers, that can, perhaps eventually, drive for you, but what do you lose? It’s clearly a wonder of the world that mankind can create a self-driving vehicle, but think of giving up your autonomy in that way. When I first considered self-driving cars, I thought, cool, maybe we could just go to sleep, wake up, and be at the beach. But I doubt I could sleep. Could you? And if we move to self-driving cars, think of the gamble we’re taking on satellites remaining functional. Knock out satellites and lose the ability to drive to Ingles? Um, no thanks.
Beyond that, think of the economic and emotional effects of automation on the job market. So much of our inner value comes from how we make a living. But this deep societal value in work ethic is at odds with the fundamental point of technology, which is to reduce necessary human energy to accomplish a task. So, it stands to reason, that a society in which technology truly triumphs would have reduced human jobs to virtually none. Ideally, we could all kick back and enjoy ourselves as the machines serve us, right? But that’s not how most people are wired, is it? What’s the saying about idle hands?
That’s why old do-it-yourself ways don’t need to lose out entirely to the wave of computers and technology. I believe that many old technologies will come back in style and importance as newer technologies are compromised and we face hardships. And any new advancement needs a backup plan, some tie to older, less-sophisticated solutions — like fixing a tractor without a computer, or getting from point A to B without reliance on satellite technology.
Companies want us to buy the latest, most-expensive thing. They know self repairs to older products hurt their profits.
But that wasteful attitude hurts society and takes away some of our self reliance.
And while everything is “smart” these days, that’s not so smart.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.