“Young people in Britain have become a lost generation who can no longer mend gadgets and appliances because they have grown up in a disposable world.”
I recently came across this quote in an article from the U.K. publication ‘The Telegraph’ in a story that discussed the lack of ‘fix it’ ability in younger generations. This notion is attributed to Danielle George, a Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering at the University of Manchester. I certainly agree that, in concept, as electronic devices have gotten smaller, more robust, and cheaper, we as a society (not just 'young people') have collectively bought into the ‘replace-not-repair’ mindset. In addition, we live in an era where like clockwork a new iPhone is delivered every 12 months. We sometimes choose to replace an older broken device for a new one simply to gain access to new features only available in the newer models. Has this coalesced into a generation that can’t repair anything that breaks? Perhaps.
However, before we default to the ‘younger generation is just lazy’ shtick, let’s take a look at the business, cultural, and engineering realities that the ‘older generations’ have imposed from their positions of power. I will do so by calling out Apple. Let me begin by stating that I love their products from a usability and aesthetic perspective. I am writing this blog from a 2012 vintage MacBook Pro and have gone through my fair share of iPods, iPads, and iPhones. Their products are beautiful and they work extremely well and rarely need servicing. But when they do need a repair it is almost impossible to do as a layman, particularly true for newer products. The tech sector is increasingly ignoring the notion of maintainability to such an extent that doing maintenance or upgrades to your devices is becoming literally impossible. Couple this with the business desire to pad earnings statements through selling device insurance, repair services and a product release schedule that makes us drool for a new device every 12 months; is it really a surprise that we now have a generation that can’t fix their electronics? To be sure this is not a problem stemming from a single company; more and more products are being produced with unmaintainable designs. But I also believe that if any industry would recognize the implications of their design strategy in producing a ‘lost generation’ of do-it-yourselfers and have the courage to do something about it, it would be the tech industry. After all, it is an industry originally built by those who grew up playing with kit-computers and ham radios.
Here’s the bottom line: I love my technology products. Yet I yearn for the ability to upgrade RAM or swap out drives as needed in my newer devices. I believe that great aesthetic design and maintainable design can and should be symbiotic. It’s easy to build a beautiful product, and it’s easy to build a maintainable product, but to build products that are both is truly great design.
In closing, let’s go back to my original point. Are we collectively a society that can’t make basic repairs on electronics? Perhaps. But it is not simply because we don’t want to... it’s because products built by massive corporations don’t lend themselves to being upgradeable or repairable anymore. I suppose, that is why we are seeing such a massive love affair with Arduino, BeagleBoard and 3D printing; because these are devices that we can have a lot more control over. And yet, I don’t see any reason why a future iPhone or Android tablet couldn’t also be just a tad friendlier when it comes to consumer repairs or upgrades. In the long run, it’s for the kids, right?
Michael Parks, P.E. is the co-founder of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and embedded security research firm located in Western Maryland. He produces the Gears of Resistance Podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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