Our digital technologies bring us many benefits: improved personal and organizational efficiency; enhanced communication and collaboration; increased access to knowledge, information, and all manner of products and services. Over the foreseeable future our technologies promise to re-shape our work-lives and our leisure time ever-more, for the better. Yet, for all the positives, our modern technology comes with an immense flaw. It’s called planned obsolescence. Those who make and sell us the next, great digital gizmo rely upon planned obsolescence, combined with our magpie-like desire for shiny new objects, to lock us into an unrelenting cycle of buy-and-replace, buy-and-replace.
Yet, if you are over 30, you may recall having fixed something. You had the tools (some possibly makeshift), you had the motivation (saving money), and you had enough skills and information to get it done. The item you fixed was pre-digital, a simple electrical device, or more likely mechanical — positively ancient by current standards. But, you breathed new life into it, avoided a new purchase, saved some cash and even learned something in the process. Our digital products make this kind of DIY repair almost impossible for all but the expert (the manufacturer or its licensed technician); in fact, should you attempt a fix, you are more likely to render the product in worse shape than before.
Our digital products are just too complex to fix. And, therein lies the paradox of our digital progress — our technologies have advanced tremendously but our ability to repair them has withered. Even many of our supposedly simpler household devices, such as the lowly toaster, blender, or refrigerator have at their heart a digital something-or-other, making repair exorbitantly expensive or impossible.
As a kid, I recall helping my parents fix an old television (the kind with vacuum tubes), mechanical cameras, a vacuum cleaner, darkroom enlarger, doorbell. Those were the days. Today, unfortunately, we’ve become conditioned to consign a broken product to a landfill and to do the same with our skills. It would be a step in the right direction for us to regain the ability to repair our products. But don’t expect any help from the product manufacturer.
We don’t have to keep buying new gadgets. In fact, we should insist on the right to keep old ones running.
Who hasn’t experienced a situation like this? Halfway through a classic Jack Lemmon DVD, my colleague Shira’s 40-inch TV conked out. Nothing showed up on the screen when she pressed the power button. The TV just hiccupped, going, “Clip-clop. Clip-clop.”
This was a great excuse to dump her old Samsung and buy a shiny new TV, right? But before heading to Best Buy, Shira gave me a call hoping for a less expensive option, not to mention one that’s better for the environment.
We ended up with a project that changed my view on our shop-till-you-drop gadget culture. We’re more capable of fixing technology than we realize, but the electronics industry doesn’t want us to know that. In many ways, it’s obstructing us.
There’s a fight brewing between giant tech companies and tinkerers that could impact how we repair gadgets or choose the shop where we get it done by a pro.
At issue: Who owns the knowledge required to take apart and repair TVs, phones and other electronics?
Some manufacturers stop us by controlling repair plans and limiting access to parts. Others even employ digital software locks to keep us from making changes or repairs. This may not always be planned obsolescence, but it’s certainly intentional obfuscation.
Thankfully, the Internet is making it harder for them to get away with it.
My first stop with Shira’s TV, a 2008 model, was Samsung itself. On its website, I registered the TV and described what was broken.
Our TV problem wasn’t unique: Samsung was taken to court about this exact issue, caused by a busted component called a capacitor. With a little googling of the TV model, I found our problem wasn’t unique. Samsung settled in 2012 by agreeing to extend warranties for 18 months on certain TVs, including this one. It also kept repairing the problem at no cost for a while after.
But when a Samsung support rep called back, she said they’d no longer fix the problem free. She passed me to an authorized Samsung repair shop in my area. They said they’d charge $90 for an estimate, and at least $125 plus parts for a repair.
Buying a similar-size Samsung TV today costs $380. Why wouldn’t Shira just buy a new TV? She felt guilty. Old electronics don’t just go to the great scrapheap in the sky—even recycled e-waste can end up in toxic dumps in the developing world.
Enter Plan B: Searching the Web, I found a ton of people talking about this TV’s broken capacitors. There were even a few folks selling DIY repair kits. The parts cost…wait for it…$12.
Read the entire story here.
Image: Digital trash, Guiyu e-waste town, 2014. Courtesy of Mightyroy / Wikipedia. CC.