So this came into my Instagram feed this morning:
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As an American, and as a member of a western, consumerist culture, this struck home with me.
One of my earliest memories of television is watching an old episode of Leave it to Beaver where Ward is replacing the plug on the family toaster.1 We used to repair things. We used to be able to repair a lot of things ourselves.
Another early memory of television: our old console television set went on the blink. Normally, you could take the back off, look for a vacuum tube that had gone bad, and then pull it out and replace it. (There is a long story here that I will tell at a later time.) But it turned out that this was not the problem. A television repairman was called. He came. He poked. He prodded. He said he would need to take the set in to the shop. So he pulled out the guts of the television, loaded them into his truck, and left us with an empty console set. It was a week before he came back with the repaired guts and put everything back together.
(Yes, in the early 1970s my family went without television for a week. We survived. Turns out you don’t need Netflix to chill2 if you just know how to chill.)
Nothing can be repaired now. It all gets thrown away.
We have become entirely too accustomed to that.
I don’t know why these images put me in mind of these facts. But it seems to me that once we put something together—as a car, a phone, a television—we stop thinking of it in terms of its components. We think of it as a thing that emerged whole, without any history of its being formed.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always like to take things apart and put them back together. I have been taking the pc boards out of non-functioning electronics for some time now because I like making art out of them. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in the manufacturing industry for entirely too long and know that things are made of many pieces, and that the pieces that go bad can generally be replaced.
And of course, that’s the problem. Manufacturers don’t want you to repair things. They don’t want you to get something new all the time. Don’t repair, don’t reuse, don’t donate. Just dump it in a landfill and buy something new.3
(Maybe it’s because I’m worried about what we’re doing with our planet, but unlike when I was younger, I’m not sure I have any answers, and I’m not entirely convinced that the answers other people have can be made to work.)
But what if we stopped looking at out things as wholes and started seeing them for what they actually are: a collection of parts. Parts which can be designed to be modular and then swapped out when they are worn, or swapped out to add different functions.
That’s what I thought about when I saw these images.
Maybe that’s just because I have a weird mind that likes to think around corners. I don’t know. But I do know we need to think differently about all the stuff that we are manufacturing with absolutely no clue—and therefore, no plan—about what to do with it once it loses its usefulness to us.
(FYI: Rob Strati, the artist behind these images, has an Instagram account here.)
1 I remember this because it has a particularly sexist moment. Beaver asks his father why the plug needs to be replaced, and Ward responds with something along the lines of “Because your mother can’t remember to grab it by the plug and is always grabbing the cord.” The subtext is that because she is a woman, she is simply incapable of actually unplugging a toaster correctly. And it is barely subtext; Ward stops short of outright saying that female brains are just not built to understand such complex processes as unplugging toasters. Sadly, large portions of our population were raised with such sexist notions and let them guide them through their daily lives.
2 I know it’s “Netflix and chill” but it really means “I need Netflix so that I can chill out”. The idea behind this phrase is not that you chill, but rather that you subscribe to Netflix.
3 Capitalism will be the death of us all because it is based on the idea of growth, which is quite ridiculous on a planet with limited physical resources. We simply cannot continue to buy new and discard old infinitely.