9/27/11

Zen and the Art of Throwing Away Broken Junk


A few years ago, while exploring the ruins of my grandfather’s shed, I found an old wooden ladder. This was a basic, folding stepladder, covered in paint drips, that my grandfather had likely used for decades of household repair. Nothing exotic about it. But the ladder, though I had never seen it before, had a quality I instantly recognized: a half-assed repair job. The spreader hinge that keeps the ladder locked into place when it unfolds was missing on one side. And my grandfather, rather than spending 89 cents at True Value, had wrapped bailing wire and electrical tape around it in a huge mass as a replacement for the missing part. This struck a familiar chord because it looked like the kind of laughable craftsmanship my father has exhibited over the years, and wasn’t too dissimilar from the sort of ladder repair I might attempt myself.


The Holts are not visionaries, and their engineering skills are minimal. When it comes to household functionality, we’ll run an extension cord through the window or knock a hole in the bathroom tile with a claw hammer to make something work. We’ll utilize tin foil, pizza boxes or coat hangers to fix a plumbing or electrical issue - whatever we have at hand. But we sure as hell are not going to spend any money on the problem. Not until all other options are exhausted. Hiring a professional is for millionaires. And a trip to the hardware store will only put us at the mercy of extortionist “experts” hustling for Black and Decker. Best to make use of the duct tape and pie plates we found in the trash.

I’m into caulk myself. My first instinct is usually just to caulk the hell out of it. And I’m happy to say that caulking has kept the mice out, stopped the dishwasher leak and covered the rusty spots around the 50-year-old pipes I can’t afford to replace. The solution to anything caulk can’t handle is more caulk. It’s just going to keep oozing out of that tube once you get it started anyway, you might as well apply it generously to whatever leaks or rattles at the time. This kind of white trash ingenuity isn’t pretty, but it’s often effective. “It looks like shit but at least it doesn’t leak anymore” has been a mantra among my people for ages. There is, however, one contemporary realm in which my preferred brand of low-cost, full-contact repair just doesn’t fly: digital media.

In the computer age, full of RAM and bytes and 25-pin ports, you can’t caulk malfunctioning software. It won’t even fix a cracked CD. Oh, we certainly try to combat the planned obsolescence encoded in our desktops and iPads with Radio Shack paraphernalia as best we can. But eventually, Big Digital is going to withhold connectivity until we spring for the upgrades. It’s all part of the master plan to shrink the mechanized world to microscopic size, so our hex screws and wrenches become useless. When your iPhone ups and dies on you, you can crack it open and stare stupidly at its unfathomable contents, but no amount of bailing wire or electrical tape will fix the problem. Unless you have access to an 11-year-old Taiwanese factory worker, you’re screwed without a trip to Office Depot (whose employees will ship your iPhone to an 11-year-old Taiwanese factory worker).

How did we let this happen? How did half-assed, oil-stained, trailer park know-how become so useless? Even with automotives, the one field of mechanical repair in which the American Redneck once reigned supreme, we are losing our dominance. Sure, Mitch down at Scrugg’s Auto Repair can still manage leaky crankcases and discombobulated door handles, but the gear under that hood is increasingly digitized. “You’ll have to take it to the dealership,” he says, “for a diagnostic.” The dealership’s computer will issue a number which indicates how expensive the funny noise is. The parts will come from Japan, and will be full of circuitry so tiny not even your eyeglass repair kit would have a chance. Mitch will eventually be forced out of business and will have to get a job installing hot tubs with his cousin.


I can’t help feeling more than old when faced with this problem, as if the time I grew up in isn’t just long ago, but is now a completely different world - a world of easily-disassembled telephones, replaceable TV tubes and yards of extra speaker wire. There was no appliance in our house when I was a lad that would be submitted to a repairman without first having been hacked at with vice grips and a phillips head by some member of the family. A couple of pokes with an ice pick and the application of a few twist ties might be all the faulty space heater really needed. But try that with your Blackberry.

You know what I miss most? Knobs. Knobs on electronic devices were simple and instinctive. Need a little more? Give it a clockwise turn. None of this jabbing repeatedly at tiny buttons to increase the digital reading. Why have we forsaken knobs? Was that glowing, digital display so hypnotizing that we abandoned centuries of hard-earned knob development? Was it just so cool and Logan’s Run to have “11:14” blinking at us that we couldn’t resist? Granted, lots of people were on drugs in the Seventies, but that doesn’t mean we had to let our guard down en masse just because coke heads like shiny things. A simple twist of the knob made the AC cooler, the Benetar louder, the Gilligan greener - all with no math skills required. Better still, a broken knob could very well be repaired with toothpicks and a glue gun. Today, when the beeping finger pad no longer activates the microwave, your Hot Pockets stay frozen, and your appliance goes to the dump. All because you didn’t stay vigilant when they came to take our knobs away.

When things break down in the digital age, we must submit all hobbled electronica, not to paid experts who understand it, but to those who pretend to. Those guys with their golf shirts and name tags don’t really grasp this invisible micro-world any more than you do. It sounds impressive when they rattle off the brand names they’ve memorized, but all they can really tell you about the problem is that it looks like your hard drive has crashed. Not broken and in need of repair, but crashed, like a singularity mysteriously collapsing on itself for reasons science can only guess. There will be no replacing of the fan belt or heating element. All those resume files and porn videos are just gone now. Start over.

Young people seem used to this – 12,000 songs carefully downloaded and arranged by mood, instantly wiped out when the MP3 player falls into the toilet, like a town flood destroying both your LP collection and your quadrophonic hi-fi system all at once. Perhaps it’s the Zen approach, this acceptance of the ethereal nature of modern electronics. It is the oldschool materialist whose garage overflows with radio tubes and telephone wire, awaiting the next do-it-yourself repair. But the new breed of digital patron knows the hardware he purchases is transient, its death as mysterious as its internal functions. He’s given up his need for control.

As for me, I’ll remain wistful with each little black box that expires. For I remember the days when a glitchy appliance sported tiny screws, inviting Joe Homeowner to open it up and conquer the world inside.

9 comments:

Max Stout said...

Brilliant piece!
"Inviting Joe Homeowner to open it up and conquer the world inside."

YOu have a real gift my friend! Love it

Zach Trenholm said...

A fun, wholly identifiably read Ash!

Esri Allbritten said...

Truly, Facebook didn't give you the scope for your true talents. I didn't know you were such an accomplished writer.

It occurs to me that with the disposability and planned uselessness of current objects, there may come a time when future generations have an unmet need for antiques that actually do stuff. Maybe I should have bought that gramaphone on eBay.

thrdgll said...

Naturally, what we're being told these days is that we're a "content-based" society now. Our books, music, educational "platforms," etc. are all just floating in the ether, and since the tangible electronic devices - the "receivers" - are the only part of the process that's manufactured (and profited from) in the traditional way, that's the stuff that's more disposable than ever. So sez I, from my disposable transmission device to yours.

Brett Myers said...

Spot on. It has been painful to see camera film, audio tape, and just about any transmission based on curves in voltage, in general, go away. I sometimes wonder if we like to think we are playing GOD. "Everything seems to be quantized to us. So let's start quantizing, too." Chasing some infinite resolution that we already had. Ever see that scene in 'The Fifth Element' were Zorg talks about creating destruction because it keeps people busy?

Really good piece, Ashley...

thrdgll said...

Thanks, everyone!

Rodney said...

I'm late to the party as usual...Great observations! Y'know the geek perspective on this is pretty well summed up by the Steampunk "crafters". These are the folks who make all of that crazy stuff from wood and brass. Jules Verne fetish aside, most actually look back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras very romantically because it was as very hands-on/ do-it yourself era. The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer inverviews several artists, crafters and musicians about what you're talking about. I understand that it's available in several libraries. Worth a look. Later.

thrdgll said...

Rodney - Thanks for the comment. You're right - not just Steampunk, but all manner of crafting has gotten a boost in the last deacde or two, and I'm sure it's a reaction to the digital age. I know where the Steampunk guys are coming from. Sometimes I'll see radios from the '20s and '30s in the antique store and just want to cry they're so beautiful.

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