As things become easier to replace, David Schembri asks: are we too quick to throw things out?
My heart pounds right through my sweaty fingertips as they pull away my malfunctioning laptop keyboard from the rest of the aluminum body. The long-dormant metal tabs make way as I apply what I keep fearing is too much force to an electronic device. The grey backlit affair looks new compared to its replacement, but the back cursor key doesn’t work, which makes it quite inconvenient for writing. I press the old keyboard – worn yet fully-functional – into the body. I send the connector ribbon through its hole, refasten the tabs over the new-old keyboard, reattach the connector and turn through the litany of screws that hold my potentially-rejuvenated MacBook Pro together.
The keyboard, the hard disk and the logic board belonged to my older specimen (bought off a friend) that had been quite badly knocked in places, with the coup de grace being the broken screen hinge, which rendered it pretty useless qua laptop. The screen, the chassis and other parts came from an identical laptop that had a near-perfect exterior but fried insides – which I bought off another friend (a designer, which might explain why the keys weren’t as worn out as on mine).
My index finger, adrenalin at its highest making it tremble, neared the power button. I pressed hard, not taking any chances, and a split second/eternity later, the usually annoying Mac startup sound announced the computer’s awakening to a new lease of life
This computer, on which the same tremulous (deadline-induced, this time round) fingers are now typing, did not start life in this way. Yet, thanks to a guide I found online, patience, and a couple of different screwdrivers, I was able to extend the life of a computer many parts of which left the assembly plant well over seven years ago.
Not only that – I also saved myself the hundreds of euro required to buy a new laptop of the same level. The high this gave me has resulted in people with no interest in electronics having to stare bemusedly as I animatedly recall that moment when it all came together. It’s a wonder I still have any friends, at this rate.
Kyle Wiens, founder of ifixit.com, knows this feeling all too well. “Taking apart something which isn’t working over which you have no power, you putting it back together and it working: that’s a really great feeling,” he tells me over a Skype call.
Wiens’s experience in trying to repair his own laptop and frustration in not being able to find the service manuals to do so online led him and his friend Luke Soules to start the website that provides hundreds of step-by-step repair manuals for hundreds of products of all kinds that are easy to follow, accompanied by high-resolution images. Although the site has a commercial arm, selling parts and tools, the repair guides are totally free. While the site is increasing in popularity, with three million visitors a month (and nearly 30,000 visits from Malta in 2013), Wiens notes that some products are quite tough to repair. “Repairing a screen on an iPhone is difficult, but it’s not impossible; it just requires lots of patience.”
However, he believes people have no excuse not to carry out easier repairs, like changing the RAM on one’s laptop. “There are some products which are definitely getting harder to repair; we’re seeing more products glued together than we ever have before. The iPad, for example, is a category of product which should have probably never have been built,” he says. He doesn’t say this out of an aversion to Apple; after all, he seems to care a lot about the iPhone 4s he has repaired countless times over the past three years. Rather, in creating a product that was slim, sleek and seamless (read: no battery access) – the trade-off was a product that could not be repaired. “I wouldn’t say it was Apple’s intent to create a throwaway product, but I would say that that’s the end result,” he says.
It’s not just electronics that have gone out of the way of user repair – although there is still a roaring trade in automotive repair, owners and tinkerers are being left out of the party. Keith Vella, a car enthusiast with an engineering background, says: “The biggest problem with modern cars is that they’re so complicated that you wouldn’t even dare to open the bonnet without a service manual. Obviously, this is kept rather under wraps. Also, customers don’t have access to the internal service bulletins addressing known issues. In that regard, Internet forums are a godsend.”
The problem has comfortable roots in the prevailing consumerist mentality. According to Wiens “we’re on this treadmill of buying more and more… If we just took a step back and started to learn about and understand these products a little more, we would want to hang onto things longer,” he says.
The trend for mass-produced, cheaply-made and sold goods has also cut out the market for repairs when it comes to certain products, as cobbler Joseph Said knows too well. “Nowadays, shoes are being sold for €5, €10 – those are not worth fixing. It is only the leather shoes that are worth fixing,” he says.
It would appear, however, that the value of repairing things has not been altogether lost in Malta. Dr Maria Attard, who heads the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta, believes that there are still households in Malta that value repair. “When WasteServ opened its website Re-use Malta, they received positive feedback from people wanting to re-use or repair rather then buy new,” she notes.
She notes that locally, choosing to throw something away as opposed to try and extend its life had its own consequences. “We have a natural limit to waste production particularly because of our limited capability to allocate land for landfills, and our recycling possibilities because of overall low volumes (from a relatively small population). We have to be very clever or innovative in the ways we look at our waste (i.e. whether to repair or replace). And here we have a very big educational challenge!” Attard says.
The problem on a more global scale is not landfills – it is what the earth itself can give us that should lead us to move back to a more repair-friendly culture. “Over time, what’s going to happen is that as the raw materials used to make these products become scarcer and more expensive and manufacturers are going to have to be forced to get into refurbishing and remanufacturing,” Wien notes. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that iFixit also has a political dimension: it advocates repair, and reparability, as tools to create jobs and avoid the problems posed by waste disposal and even recycling.
And in repairing our things, we do not just solve problems; we imbue the object repaired with meaning and build a relationship with them. “We move through life so quickly; we don’t take time to appreciate people or things,” Wiens says. “I think if there’s a way to slow down, and say let’s take a little bit more care; that means more care in our relationships, more care of other things.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 edition of Sunday Circle and subsequently on sundaycircle.com, but has been revisited for publication on this website