The DIY Ethic and Creating Technology Independence

L. Marie/CC BY 2.0

We've had some bummer news in the tech and gadgets sphere over the last month or so.

It started when Apple announced the new MacBook Pro and iFixit did their usual teardown. This time, instead of commending the manufacturer for the repairability of the product, iFixit founder Kyle Weins stated, "The Retina MacBook is the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart," and the team gave it a score of 1 out of 10 for repairability.

We weren't happy with the new model, to say the least. It sparked a debate about DIY culture and repairability versus consumer expectations among the TreeHugger editors which led to a survey asking what the readers think. The majority of you said that indeed repairability is a must. But that doesn't change the fact of the new MacBook Pro's design. If you want the computer repaired, you're stuck with Apple services.

The second piece of bummer news came at the beginning of last week when word hit that Apple has ditched EPEAT, a certification program for electronics that requires participating companies to meet certain environmental standards. Essentially, the company chose to have total control over design even at the expense of such issues as recyclability of a product. Luckily, that news was reversed by week's end when Apple decided it was indeed a dumb idea to move away from EPEAT and came back to the certification program. What we can expect from future designs from Apple in terms of repairability and recyclability still remains to be seen -- after all upon their return they listed the new MacBook Pro with the glued-in battery listed as EPEAT Gold. Huh?? Hopefully EPEAT rectifies that during its verification process.

So, essentially one of the biggest consumer electronics companies has chosen to bail on repairability and recyclability, two of the biggest elements of making a product environmentally friendly. It seems like just yesterday that Apple was in a race with Dell to claim the crown of "greenest laptop." Even Greenpeace once gave the company a nod of approval. And now it seems the company couldn't possibly care less about any of that. The gravity of this news is hard to overstate.

What's all this Apple news have to do with DIY? Well, it serves to highlight exactly why the growing DIY trend in technology is so important -- it allows freedom from manufacturers, especially those who shun such basics as being able to easily disassemble a product and replace or upgrade parts.

craigdietrich/CC BY 2.0

Freeing Gadgets From Manufacturers

Though Apple did come back to EPEAT, the original act of moving away from the program -- especially citing design direction as a motive -- is significant. It basically means that we cannot fully trust electronics manufacturers to make environmental impact a constant priority forever. As Apple has demonstrated, it is a priority as long as it works in favor of the business. Design goals (or materials sourcing, or manufacturing standards, or any number of other pieces of the industry puzzle) can and do shift, and green goals set up in the past could easily be shoved aside.

It's not just direct environmental standards at risk, but indirect as well. When manufacturers design away the ability of the consumer to open, modify, repair, replace, and recycle a device, the environment is ultimately impacted. This couldn't be better illustrated than by the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which Apple has told its technicians is not a replaceable component (because it's been glued in) and in order to replace it, one must replace the entire top case including keyboard, speakers, microphone and more. Such a simple component as the battery is now off limits to everyone, even Apple's own technicians.

Most of the energy and materials consumed by a device is consumed during the manufacturing process, called embodied energy. The more disposable or irreparable a company makes a device, the more of the planet's resources are sucked up into the industry, as is the case with replacing not only a battery but several other electrical components of the laptop's top case. DIYers and local repair businesses are both ways to extend the life and minimize the impact of devices -- if they can actually work with a device. So it is part of the environmental responsibility of manufacturers to make their electronics accessible to anyone.

Even flipping this argument on its head and noting that there are many electronics manufacturers who have their hearts and business plans in the right place when it comes to the environment -- many have worked hard and with sincerity toward reducing the environmental footprint of their devices -- it comes down to a simple fact: we can't fully trust big business to work toward environmentalism 100% of the time.

The DIY trend equates to independence from manufacturers, equates to freedom of creativity, equates to environmental responsibility on a larger scale. Learning to build, repair, upgrade and modify gadgets is at the foundation of this independence. And as manufacturers recognize the drive for anyone from an individual to a small repair business to a recycler requiring that design to follow this DIY trend, then the closer we get to this goal of freeing a device from the manufacturer.

I love this quote from an article in Wired titled "In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits":


Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits.

Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things...

...Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets, as ideas go straight into production, no financing or tooling required. “Three guys with laptops” used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too...

...A garage renaissance is spilling over into such phenomena as the booming Maker Faires and local “hackerspaces.” Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, user-generated content — all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world.

In short, atoms are the new bits.

Pause in your reading to think about this for a moment: Anyone able to create anything on a one-at-a-time scale. Now try to imagine major electronics manufacturers holding on to their crowns and scepters for very much longer. It doesn't seem hard to imagine that shortly (A few years? A decade? Two?) the decisions about the design of a product will be entirely in consumers' hands and easy access to components will be high on the Must-Have list.

mtneer_man/CC BY-ND 2.0

Is DIY the Way of the Future?

The next question that reasonably follows is: Is the DIY trend really growing enough to see this independence from manufacturers realized? Is technology with more of a DIY spirit really in our future? Is it really, truly likely that consumers will have far more say over the accessibility of a product's parts?

Some argue that making devices that can be readily opened, altered, repaired and upgraded would mean the end of super slim, small designs -- and that's just not something manufacturers nor consumers are willing to let go of. The counter argument is, so what if stuff is a little bit bigger than is conceivably possible? Is that so hard a thing to sacrifice in order to have complete access to a device's innards? And really, does that have to be sacrificed at all? Perhaps not, as technology continues to advance toward the tiny.

I would argue that the DIY spirit is indeed growing quickly enough in the tech industry that there's a shot. Examples include the successes of Maker Faire around the world. Maker Faire celebrates all things DIY but there is a significant emphasis on gadgets, robotics, and cool, creative ways to use technology for different purposes. As Maker Faires spread, so too does the interest in being able to put techy resources to work on any idea one can dream up. Another example is the creation and popularity of DIY tools such as B-Squares, BUGlabs, BeagleBoards, kits in the Maker Shed for building things with Arduino and microcontrollers, and other devices that allow the user to create pretty much anything they can dream up.

And a final example is the success of sites like iFixit that focus on getting to know the guts of your gadgets, making repair feel accessible to anyone of any skill level, and perhaps most importantly, creating readily available manuals for every device so that repair or simply gathering information about an electronic is possible. It's clear that consumers like being able to know what's in their products and take ownership through hands-on interaction.

As resources like these grow, the idea of consumers requiring accessibility to a device's components with readily available tools -- the actualization of portions, if not all, of the Maker's Bill of Rights -- is not so hard to imagine.

sparr0/CC BY-SA 2.0

A DIY Manifesto

Speaking of manifestos, it seems only fitting that we end discussing what the DIYer's manifesto may look like. There are a number of manifestos that have circulated, two of the most popular being the Maker's Bill of Rights by Mister Jalopy and the Self-Repair Manifesto from iFixit.

However, there is another evolving manifesto worth spending time mulling over. It is from TJ McCue and the organizing team for the Kitsap Mini Maker Faire, and it focuses on the maker community including the move away from exclusivity and toward collaboration. It emphasizes the point that by relying on both ourselves and each other, by being open and generous with information, tools and resources, and by requiring businesses to be equally as forthright and practical with their products, we can become a more creative, engaged, and inspired as a culture.

A draft-ish version is in an article by McCue on Forbes:


We will move beyond Do-It-Yourself (DIY) to Do-It-With-Others (DIWO) because collaboration, not competition, is the way of now, and of the future. Competition will always exist, of course. And sometimes you have to work alone, too. But the opportunity to collaborate with people smarter than you (as in yourself) is paramount. Some people prefer Do-It-Together (DIT) and that works, too.

Collaboration creates community. Fearless sharing creates community. We will serve the community.

Let’s make this personal and local and useful. Business is personal, or should be, and isn’t the evil that we hear about on the news. You don’t steal from people you know, trust, and choose to be around.

STEAM is a better acronym than STEM. All science, technology, engineering, and mathematics make Jack and Jill a dull pair. Add Art, stir.

Relationships are what foster sustained innovation, product or repair improvements, and the creation of new knowledge.

Enter the Void. Warranties that don’t let you repair it yourself should be challenged. Companies that penalize self-repair are dinosaurs. Warning: We void warranties. As Make and ifixit have pointed out: “If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.”

Tools are important. Access to tools is possibly more important. As some other manifestos point out – specialized tools are just WRONG. To be clear: We are fed up with the latest iteration of TORX or adding a fifth slot to a Phillips head screw when you can make something that can’t be changed with a standard, accessible tool.

Share what you know. You have knowledge and experience that benefits others.

Teaching people about hacking is good and that repairing things is okay. Screws are meant to be turned. Cases are meant to be opened. Somewhere in the world someone has done it before. If not, you can be the first.

Kids are magic. There is magic in the way kids bring process to life. More accurately, how kids can break down a process that adults have created and show us a simpler more elegant way. We will share our passion for learning with children and the parents of children.

We believe Maker Business is Local Business and support the small urban manufacturer and small rural manufacturer — which is the 1 and 2 person shop, studio, gallery, and workspace. We can be a voice in the marketplace for one another.

Reusing and repairing things is like chicken soup for the maker hacker soul. We claim the child-like need to not part or separate ourselves from things that still have “life” in them.

Mini and Micro Maker Faires are the way of the future. People, especially families and children, benefit from the hands-on nature of do-it-yourself festivals and gatherings.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Making DIY Mainstream

DIY is not just for people who like to get hands on with products. It is a state of mind -- a state of being -- that alters culture and economy. It is the root of sustainability in technology. And it is the root of freedom, of independence from companies like Apple that happily erode the environmental integrity of products and try so diligently to strip self-reliance from makers. DIY is a way to take back our gadgets, so to speak. It is not just for makers and hackers, it is even for people who prefer not to dive in to their devices and rather hand over their old gadgets to someone -- a neighbor or local repair shop owner -- who can fix or reuse them.

I'd like to end on this great little video spotted on BrainPickings, that illustrates the timelessness of DIY culture, and will hopefully keep us inspired to maintain and continue to grow a DIY ethic in our own lives:

"In 1960, the Chevrolet division of General Motors and the Handy (Jam) Organization produced American Maker a half-hour film about craftsmanship, creativity and how Americans build. More than a mere vehicle of patriotic propaganda, the film is beautifully shot and offers stunning footage of life and work in that era for a fascinating cultural contrast to the “Swinging London” of the 1960, going on at the same time across the pond."

Of all things Americans are, we are makers. With our strengths and our minds and spirit, we gather and form and we fashion. Makers and shapers and put-it-togetherers. We start young, finding out early in life what it’s like to feel something grow and take shape beneath our hands... As makers of today and shapers for tomorrow, we Americans seem to share an inborn understanding of how to go about making the things we want. Whether we’re reaching for the moon, hobbying in the home, doing our part on a convenience to be enjoyed, or preparing a tasty tidbit, we’re — all of us — makers.

Don't let the content of that quote become a thing of the past.

Tags: Do It Yourself | Electronics | Gadgets | longreads

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