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On Fixing Things


Lately my garage-door opener has been acting up. In some recent heavy rains the sensors got wet (or so I suspect) and have become unpredictable: sometimes they let the door close, sometimes they don’t.

I went down to the garage and got down on my knees and peered at the sensors. I made sure that they were properly aligned, and that the little LEDs on them were shining their proper colors. Everything looked okay, but the door still wouldn’t close. Then I unscrewed the sensors from their brackets and took a closer look. The wires disappeared into the plastic housing which I could see no obvious way to open.

I paused to think. Clearly I needed new sensors. Could I find the right ones nearby? Almost certainly. Could I wire them properly? Well, sure. I mean, I do really basic electrical work around my house, like replacing old outlets. Of course I can do this! … Probably. I hesitated. I thought about the fact that we’re moving in a week and I have a great deal to do. I went back upstairs and called the people who installed the garage door to come and fix it.

Clive Thompson says we may have a Maker Movement but we need something else:

You’ve heard about the “maker movement,” the geeks who’ve been rebooting America’s craft tradition. It’s a grassroots success story, refueling interest in engineering and giving kids practical skills with tools. But now we need something new. We need to apply those maker skills to what we already own, giving broken devices a new lease on life.

We need, in short, a fixer movement. This would be a huge cultural shift. In the 20th century, U.S. firms aggressively promoted planned obsolescence, designing things to break. Buying new was our patriotic duty: “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace,” marketer Victor Lebow wrote in 1955.

In the rest of his thoughtful essay Thompson focuses on repairing and restoring electronics, especially computers — but he begins by talking about a toaster oven. Maybe that’s where we should start, those of us who’d like to be better fixers: with mechanical things, machines that are electrically simple — or barely electrical at all, like lawn mowers. But as Thompson notes, to do any of this is to work against the grain of modern manufacturing culture. Consider what the electronification of automobile engines has done to the great American tradition of tinkering under the hood. Repair has become unAmerican.

Long ago, the Jacques Ellul Society — not, I think, Ellul himself — came up with “76 Reasonable Questions to Ask about Any Technology”, and some of the most provocative ones revolve around these very issues. I leave you with them:

What does it make?

Who does it benefit?

What is its purpose?

Where was it produced?

Where is it used?

Where must it go when it’s broken or obsolete?

How expensive is it?

Can it be repaired?

By an ordinary person?

UPDATE: Michael Sacasas has pointed me to this pertinent manifesto.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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