Can technology save us?

Materials World magazine
7 May 2012

A DIY technology workshop is offering back-to-basics electronics skills, giving Londoners the chance to ditch the spreadsheets for soldering irons. Michael Bennett reports.

In the drug-soaked, micro-managed dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, one of the main mantras of the society is that phrase ‘ending is better than mending’. This sentiment now seems more relevant than ever before, with Moore’s Law – the rule that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years, leading to exponential increase in computing power – locking technology in a resource-guzzling cycle of improvement and obsolescence.

It’s something Daniel Hirschmann, one of the founders of Technology Will Save Us (TWSU), a DIY electronics workshop based in London, UK, knows all too well. ‘Nobody has really educated us about the technology in our lives,’ he says. ‘It’s just “buy this”, “buy that”, if it breaks, “buy the new one”. This whole “replace instead of repair” is a crazy mindset that has been pushed on the world by technology producers.’

Together with his partner, Bethany Koby, Hirschman is hoping that TWSU can help correct this by running a series of classes to teach people basic electronics skills. The workshop offers a number of ‘how-to’ classes, ranging from plug-wiring and basic soldering, to building a pair of speakers from recycled materials. They also give lessons in the use of Arduino circuit-boards, an Italian-made, easy-to-use micro-controller platform designed to make electronic hardware more accessible. Hirschmann claims that products such as Arduino are lowering the barrier to entry into electronics, ‘putting prototyping into the hands of someone who has a little bit of patience to learn it’.

Describing the project as ‘a haberdashery of technology and education,’ Hirschmann cites the textile industry as a source of inspiration for TWSU. ‘A haberdashery was a place where you would find someone who was quite good at doing things with material, sewing buttons, darning socks or repairing trousers. You would go there to find the right materials, but also the skillset or knowledge base to go about the thing you wanted to do.’ He adds that since the recession hit, there has been a rise in traditional haberdasheries, with people tiring of disposable fashion. He thinks we might see a similar shift in attitudes towards technology.

Hirschmann claims his classes can furnish people with take-home skills that could help alleviate some of the anxiety caused by modern technology. ‘So you’ve just learnt how to solder – then the next time a component is rattling around inside one of your electronic devices, whether it’s a hi-fi or DVD player, you may think twice before throwing it away. You’ll know what a circuit board looks like, how it feels when a solder blob wraps itself round a component. That way, it’s not a big jump to open it up, look inside and see if there is something you can do to fix it.’

Another name for this sort of opening-it-up, fixing and repurposing technology is ‘hacking’. Not to be confused with the stealing-over-the-internet kind, a hack, simply put is a clever solution to an everyday problem. Hirschmann explains, ‘The hacker ethos of taking [things] apart to learn from and reuse is brilliant. To not see an end point but to only see a beginning.’ Though this may sound novel, it is essentially no different to what people were doing in the pre-industrial era. ‘By moving to the city, losing our relationship with nature and not using our hands for everything, we got separated from the can-do approach to physically making stuff,’ says Hirschmann. ‘A good example of this kind of hacker would be somebody such as Leonardo Da Vinci. Somebody who understood the status quo, but found it wasn’t enough for him’.

Hirschman believes we need to rethink our viewpoint towards products and repair, and says in a resource-limited future, these sort of hacking skills will be crucial.

The idea seems to have struck a chord with the public. ‘This isn’t just hobbyists – this is everyone,’ says Hirschmann. ‘We’ve even had electricians in our soldering workshops. Everyone is intrigued, and everyone is frustrated with the technology in their lives.’

So should we all start fiddling around with our electronics? The problem here is that much modern technology does not invite you to tinker with it. Just look at the iPhone’s sleek, impenetrable casing. ‘These things are not designed to be close-looped,’ says Hirschmann. ‘If you open it, you’re voiding your warranty, and there are problems with that [business] model.’

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