Why don’t we fix technology any more?

Over the last few years, the trend towards disposable technology has gotten more and more prevalent. We are no longer fixing things like we used to. It’s difficult to even find someone to fix an old television, let alone a microwave or a vacuum. Sure, most stores that sell computers also service them but it’s mostly for configuration issues and wiping away viruses – all things that are controlled with software. Anything more complicated in hardware and you are looking at replacing the item, not fixing it. What has happened?

One front is the manufacturing process. An electronic manufacturing process known originally as planar mounting was pioneered by IBM back in the 1960s, but really literally took off with the development of the Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets. Now known as surface mount technology, the process involves mounting electronic components directly onto the surface of a motherboard instead of using through holes and manually soldering components onto a board. The benefit of surface mounting is that components can be up to 1/10 of the original size and allows for mounting parts on both sides of a board, increasing the density available in a small space. Things like our cell phones would just not be able to be as thin as they are without surface mount technology. It also lends itself well to automation, meaning that boards can be built entirely with robots placing the parts and thus driving labour costs down. The downside is that manually repairing surface mount parts is very difficult, and requires expensive tools. This is a major reason why repairs are difficult on newer technologies.

Secondly, our mentality in regards to upgrades with technology has been greatly changed. Personally, I blame companies like Apple for getting us used to new models every single year and pushing us into upgrading. The cell companies are to blame as well, providing us the financing to do so. Their long-term greed fuels our short-term gain mentalities, thinking that what we have isn’t good enough and pushing us towards the latest and greatest. While in many ways this is great, it has a big downside. Why bother fixing something you are going to replace shortly anyway? Just get rid of it and get the new model.

Have you ever tried to open your cell phone to fix it? It’s no longer as simple as you might think. While computers and electronics of yesteryear were usually approachable with a handy Phillips screwdriver, new electronics often don’t have any screws visible at all. Our “fashion conscious” thinking has new devices that are sleeker and slimmer then ever, giving way to hidden plastic tabs and proprietary screws that mean a whole new generation of “tinkererers” may be lost forever. It’s not just that it’s difficult to work on these tiny devices, but getting into them alone is an exercise in frustration and trial and error. Thank goodness that all the do-it-your-selfers have YouTube available to share information with each other, or we might be forever lost.

One might also argue that in order to provide a higher quantity of technical support (that is, people to answer phones and queries) we have lost the quality of technical support that we might have been used to in the past. Now, more often than not when we call for support on a product, it’s just easier to have you send the product in for repair at the facility and they will ship you out a new one. Most of the time, there is actually nothing wrong with the product and it is just user error or something that is fixable in house. This has given way to entire stores opening and websites with refurbished product. There is an abundance because we don’t really bother fixing what we have, we just get something else.

It’s not a mentality that I easily endorse. I’m used to fixing things and tinkering with them. The times have changed however. It’s not just computers either, it’s also cars and many other things that people loved to “play” with and “fix”. It seems like that era is over, but the good news is that there is always something new to play with on the horizon. Happy new year, happy new toys.

Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum (http://www.pcmuseum.ca) and the Manager of Information Technology at ACIC / Methapharm.  You can reach him via-email at sbolton@bfree.on.ca or on Twitter @sydbolton.

By Syd Bolton


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