#Firstworldproblems

This project originated from discussions at the ICT4D meetup in London. ICT for “D” (d meaning development) is a term that started gaining momentum in recent decades, although people have been using communications technology for development since the advent of smoke signals.

Ugo and I have both worked extensively in places where communications technology can make a massive difference – where simple mobiles can often literally save lives in everyday situations. And we’ve seen that people’s relationship with gadgets and technology is completely different in most of the places we worked. I often give this example, but even a simple ballpoint pen would have never been discarded in the provincial Mozambican office I spent time in.

What was troubling us more and more was not actually the “underdeveloped” places we worked in, but in fact the attitudes and behaviours of people here back in our northern homes.

Watching people discarded devices because they ran “slow”. Watching people upgrade by simply buying new phones every nine months.

Have we become passive, flabby consumers of technology – like the future humans in Wall-E? Have we have lost our “repair muscle mass”?

I remember saying to Ugo, when we serviced my old Macbook together, looking at the scratched-up battery casing – remarking how many people will use and discard a laptop before ever even opening up their machines.

Would you buy a car and never open up the bonnet and simply trade it the moment something went wrong? Why do we treat our ICT devices the same way in Europe and the US?

Much like greenhouse emissions, e-waste is a first world problem that is causing a huge amount of hurt in the third world. The tongue-in-cheek project Design for the First World reminds us that, actually, we need to take stock and recognise that we have some massive problems of our own that need to be solved urgently.

We are starting our project “preaching to the converted” – working with our supportive friends from the ICT4D community, Transition Towners and Freecyclers.

But we see this a massive, global behaviour change project – our vision is a world where everybody opens up their gadgets after warranty, where consumers demand repairable and upgradable products, where people become true owners of their e-stuff.

To do this, we are focusing on making self-repair less scary and third-party repair more accessible. But this is just the beginning.

In terms of hardware, we need to encourage manufacturers to do their part – rewarding those who improve and shaming those who don’t. This means increased transparency in the electronics industry that allows consumers to make informed choices.

In terms of software, we need to break the cycle of new hardware -> new software -> new hardware. People need to be able to optimise software for existing hardware to prevent the “running slow” problem.

These may seem like mammoth problems – but if we don’t try, we’ll never know if we can crack them. We’re starting small, but our vision is big.

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2 thoughts on “#Firstworldproblems

  1. not sure how old you two are (I turned 40 this year BTW) but until the 1980s repair and expansion of electronics was commonplace. This did go into the computer age, vaguely remember that the Apple II came with a circuit diagram in its manuals, similarly the commodore PET computer and others of that era. As did much hi fi. In fact until the mid 1990s much AV equipment came with a circuit diagram, though it fell out of favour as companies also felt they were giving away design secrets to competitors.

    BTW cars are also nowadays much harder to fix and require proprietary test equipment (a friend of mine in his 20s is a mechanic and prefers to work on vehicles way older than he is for this reason).

    I agree totally with your concerns about the way people in England view equipment (I deliberately use England rather than UK because attitudes are much better in Scotland and other Celtic areas of the UK) – for instance I am a mod on a dance music forum with a relatively green/progressive outlook in many respects and yet the young folk there making music still feel they need to upgrade a laptop because its “slow” or to get a new bit of kit for the studio.

    much of this is caused by lack of tech understanding and deliberate planned obsolescene particularly of software, other times there are genuine innovations (a faster computer can for instance emulate a rack of separate music equipment) – but at the same time many don’t realise even if that old computer isn’t up to doing the “new tricks” it can be reformatted and used for audio level monitoring for mastering, streaming to online radio and other functions for which you would previously have needed to buy €2000 worth of specialist equipment…

    • Alex, I’m just 5 years younger, and I know things are getting worse. Not just in electronics, but in all fields. Some small towns are even losing shoe repair shops, for example. And I agree cars are also increasingly not-repairable, at least not comparably to how they once were. We are living a tension between understandable and positive innovation on the one side, and “desperate consumerism” on the other. I’m quite happy that computer manufacturers (for example) are coming up with better laptop screens, certainly a positive development for people using their computers for 10hrs a day. Sadly these often come at the expense of repairability and durability. At the same time, the public is increasingly deceived in waves of compulsive consumerism around e-gadgets. It becomes the norm to keep upgrading constantly, without appreciating the wider consequences of our behaviours. For us, to learn more about repair skills is a way to start conversations and reflect with the communities we meet. Reuse and repair are so much more empowering than appropriate recycling!

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