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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Are We Losing Our Ability to Fix Things?

I read Louis Uchitelle's essay in Sunday's New York Times entitled, A Nation That's Losing Its Toolbox. Mr. Uchitelle's piece laments what he perceives to be the loss of the ability of the average American to work with his or her hands to fix things - whether things around the house, or the family car, or even on the job.  He describes legions of Home Depot shoppers who need in-store training on how to fix a faucet or install a replacement window. He equates this loss to the diminishing ability of Americans to innovate through a hands-on, we-can-fix-anything attitude.  Mr. Uchitelle believes that this loss shows up "in the wistful popularity of books like 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' by Matthew M. Crawford." [I read Mr. Crawford's book a couple of years ago and I thought it mostly a scree against white-collar workers.]

In the same issue of the Times was a second article entitled, How a Cellphone's Case Can Imitate Its Maker, by Randall Stross.  The article delves into the differences in the difficulties of repairing smart phones and ePad devices depending on the manufacturer. In his column, Mr. Stross focused on a web-based company called iFixit which sells online manuals and tools to change cellphone batteries, replace cracked touch screens, and make other repairs to our electronic paraphernalia. As a bad example Mr. Stross cites the iPhone 4 which is put together with special screws specially designed by Apple to be unremovable without a special screwdriver. Enter iFixit which sells not only said screwdriver but replacement screws that work with the ordinary variety of torquing tools. iFixit calls their product the "Liberation Kit".  Their claim is that anyone can replace an iPhone battery in less than five minutes.

I was struck by the completely different attitudes in these two articles. One laments the loss of handyman capabilities while the other celebrates that we can indeed do-it-ourselves. Which is the truer picture?  I would suggest that the lack of fix-it knowledge is a least as much a function of manufacturers designing products that can't be easily repaired as it is that we are losing our desire to fix things. Take the automobile as a prime example. Most men (I'm not being sexist, it just seemed to work this way) used to know how to change the oil in their cars and if pressed could replace the spark plugs, points, air filters, and maybe even the brakes. Today, the entire motor is hidden under a one-piece shroud that envelops virtually the whole engine compartment making access nigh-on impossible. The engine is carefully monitored and controlled by several computers which are no longer accessible or adjustable with the wrenches and screwdrivers found in most toolboxes.  We now are informed of the status of the inner workings of the engine only when we get the dreaded Check Engine Light illuminated on the instrument panel.  Even then, you need an engine analyzer to read the computer error codes to see what might be bothering your ailing vehicle.

But despite my experience, given the tools and the knowledge, a lot of people are willing to give some reasonable repairs a try. Not everyone, of course. Not everyone fixed their cars even in the days of the Model T.  But I would argue that most people with a little encouragement will try to repair things that seem within the knowledge of someone with a normal amount of mechanical aptitude. We like to fix things. The reason fix-it shops have disappeared is not because we don't like fixing things, it is because most things are not designed to be fixed. Open the average DVD player these days and you find a box with one electronics board that does everything, some injection molded plastic parts that are ultrasonically welded together and a cheap optical laser to read the DVD. None of this can be repaired if it has a problem. The only solution is to junk it.

It used to be different. When radios and tvs had vacuum tubes, even drug stores had so-called tube testers that allowed a homeowner to check a tube to see if it needed replacing and sold the tubes on the spot! There was a company called Sam's that used to sell extensive repair manuals and schematics for every radio and television set made (all in the USA, by the way). Shop manuals for cars were commonly sold to car owners.  Most home owners had at least a few books around on DIY subjects.

So I'm not buying Mr. Uchitelle's argument that people just don't seem to know how to do anything these days. Give them the tools and a little instruction and people can do some amazing things for themselves. To prove my point, I would refer Mr. Uchitelle to the growing popularity of "maker fairs" and magazines such as Make which celebrate a whole new generation of DIYers. The internet is bursting with websites that teach people how to do everything from changing an iPhone battery to repairing a furnace. I'm not worried about our hands-on, can-do attitudes going away any time soon. We are still a nation of doers.

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