My maternal grandfather was a big believer in making things on his own. Although my maternal grandmother’s vintage exercise bike is the one item I remember most from the basement of the house where Mom grew up, her father’s workshop was a very close second. I don’t have any memories of him actually making things down there, but I only visited the house for the winter holidays, and even if he’d wanted to make things down there while we were over, I doubt that his wife would have let him.
I do have vivid memories of one of his signature kitchen tools, though, in part because Mom had one of them. Instead of buying a potato masher at the local five-and-dime, my maternal grandfather devised a much cheaper, and much better, masher of his own, using thick wire fencing (sterilized first, of course) stapled around a short metal cylinder, which was then attached to a wooden handle he planed and stained on his own. I don’t know how many of them he made, but I remember the one that he gave my family because we never got rid of it. In addition to mashing potatoes much more quickly than a standard potato masher because of its increased surface area, that thing just endured everything that my parents could throw at it. Even though I prefer instant mashed potatoes, I still deeply regret that I never got my maternal grandfather to make a potato masher for me before he passed away.
Of course, the expected life of any tool depends on a variety of factors, including construction and frequency of use. That potato masher is hardly the only kitchen tool I can remember Mom using from my earliest childhood memories to her passing last year, but the fact that her father made it on his own, long before the term “DIY culture” was even coined, still sticks with me, especially when I can visit kitchen stores today and not see a more efficient potato masher than the one he made.
Looking back at the last century of America, it could definitely be argued that the tendrils of our “culture of disposability” were in place long before I was born, but it certainly felt like the 1980’s was when that phrase reached its peak usage. Perhaps that was because of the growing environmental movement of the time, but even if the phrase has waned from popular discussion over the past twenty-five years, the concept is one that seems more relevant than ever today. The wave of outrage against Apple for deliberately slowing down the performance of older iPhones points to how disposability is not only baked into our modern culture but, worse yet, may soon be legitimated in the courts.
Modern technology certainly doesn’t have the same expected life cycle as, say, a potato masher, but that depends on the purposes that the technology is used for. My father’s first PC was an 8088 manufactured by a very early PC maker named Leading Edge; although he didn’t let me on his Leading Edge that much (and I was much more enamoured with his TRS-80s anyway), I can still remember playing a chess game called Cyrus on it, and watching him build early 3-D architectural models on the first versions of AutoCAD. That computer obviously couldn’t handle the kinds of modeling he was doing when he died in 2008, but it was still part of his business in its final months. He’d loaded a DOS office suite called First Choice on it, and used its database component to maintain a list of architectural firms for him to cold call when he was looking for business; he’d even rigged his first modem (a lightning-fast 1200 baud when he bought it) to automatically dial the numbers for him.
I’ve never recycled my old computers for other purposes, but I’ve never had a real need to. I only really need one desktop and one laptop at any given time, and I only upgrade my systems when I absolutely have to. The two desktops I’ve built were both made obsolete only by increased system requirements for software necessary for my work, and I’ve only had one laptop conk out on me. I suppose that I might have been able to repurpose my older desktops as media servers, or something along those lines, but I’ve never really needed to do that, and even with my strong hoarder tendencies, I just don’t see any real reason for me to keep my old computers around. (I do remove the hard drives before I retire them, of course.)
My luck with cell phones hasn’t been so stellar, but I was also buying bargain-basement phones from prepaid cell phone services until very recently. Even the brick of a Nokia I bought when I first went cellular in 2001 wound up becoming useless when the battery connecters got messed up, to the point where the phone would power down when I looked at it the wrong way. A few years ago, though, I saved up and bought a Google Nexus 5, and it’s far outlasted any other cell phone I’ve owned. It might not have all the latest Android gewgaws, but it does what I need it to do (and then some), and nothing in the latest iterations of Android hardware and software make me feel like I’ll need to replace it soon (unless my capacity for klutzery results in me breaking it, of course).
Again, I haven’t thought to repurpose my older cell phones because I haven’t had a need to, but I can remember how the first smartphones I bought seemed to slow down within weeks of me buying them. Again, I attribute that more to the fact that I was buying substandard stuff back then, but I can’t imagine those older Android phones being capable of doing much of anything. I’ve heard of how older iPads can only really be used as digital picture frames, but I’ve never been an Apple person to start with, and I certainly don’t have much experience at all using their mobile devices.
Still, I have to believe that there are lots of people like me who are happy with three-year-old phones because they do everything we need them to do. More to the point, many of us who use older phones don’t really have a choice in the matter. Even when I was buying cheap prepaid phones at Meijer, they weren’t all that cheap, and my Nexus 5, even though it was an older model when I bought it, was still $300 on sale. This is the key problem with the American culture of disposability, because it assumes that consumers can afford to replace things every few years. That may be true for the upper classes, but there are far too many Americans for whom even the cheapest prepaid phone would be a serious expense, and with so many essential services (like job applications) going strictly online these days, and with so many employers now expecting to be able to reach their employees at all hours and at all locations, there’s a very strong argument to be made that a smartphone is a necessity for most Americans now.
Although I expect that Apple will get in some trouble in these lawsuits for not informing customers that they were going to slow down their phones’ performance, when the matter of whether or not companies like Apple have a legal right to hinder the performance of their own products to force customers to upgrade is finally settled (which may take years, because I strongly suspect that Apple will settle this first wave of lawsuits), I have to believe that the right of companies to deliberately “brick” their products will be upheld. The real reason for this will be the privileging of corporate profits over consumers’ rights to quality, of course, but now that the culture of disposability is so pernicious in America, so widely expected, that will probably be the excuse written up in court rulings: Of course you should only expect your cell phone to last two years, because that’s just the way these things go.
More than ever, this is why it’s important for those of us who have the capacity to tackle these things, both technologically and financially, to create functional alternatives to the products and services being offered by major corporations. Unlike Apple products, Android has an open base that can be taken advantage of, and while I know that building my own cell phone will probably be much more taxing than building my own PC, this recent Apple news sure has me keen to learn how to make the successor to my Nexus 5 with my own hands. It might not last as long as my grandfather’s potato masher, but it’ll probably be functional for years after the current wave of iPhones gets bricked by Apple.