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June 23rd, 2017

Insight

Technology breeds broken throwaway culture

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published December 30, 2014

Some things can't be fixed. I learned this painful lesson the hard way when I was 4 years old. I had my heart set on a toy steam shovel. A tiny bucket at the end of a string could be reeled in to lift a teaspoon of mud. A little boy could build an interstate highway system with it.

My mother bought it in October for Christmas, putting it in layaway and paying for it with a dime or three nickels and sometimes a quarter at a time. She was as pleased as I was on Christmas morning when she saw my face. I took it out at once to the alley in the back of the house, eager to make it work. After digging a small hole in the ground, I hurried inside to see the rest of Christmas. When I returned to the steam shovel an hour later, it lay in a tiny heap of tin and cotton string, as flat as a pancake. I looked up through my tears to see a large truck disappearing down the alley.

I was not really worried. My mother would fix it. She fixed everything — a missing button, a skinned knee, a broken flashlight. She could fix a broken heart. I carried the remains into the house and handed them over. I couldn't understand her tears, but she knew she couldn't fix it, and had no more dimes and nickels for a replacement Christmas. Some things can't be fixed, not even by a mother.

But I survived. I was just slightly ahead of my time. A new study in Britain concludes that young people today are "a lost generation" that can no longer mend anything, having grown up in a throwaway culture where little has lasting value. Unlike previous generations, who learned to "mend, make do or do without," the young learn early to throw out faulty appliances and buy everything new.

Danielle George, a professor of radio frequency engineering at the University of Manchester, says "the under-40s expect everything to just work" and have no idea what to do when things go wrong. When something is rendered as flat as a pancake, even Mom doesn't know what to do about it.

Professor George, the featured speaker at this year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, wants to inspire consumers to think what they can do to "repurpose" common household objects. It might even have a message for the economy. The professor concedes that the list might be a short one because the factory electronics that have taken over modern life do seem to work all the time.

"Because they don't break," she says, "we just get used to them. They have almost become like the black boxes that never die. And when they do, we throw them away and buy something new. But there is now a big maker community who are thinking hard about what we do with all these gadgets."

Imagination can take flight from the ruins of gadgets. The professor demonstrates how to send wireless messages using a contraption fashioned from a barbecue grill, control a fireworks display from a laptop computer, make a machine to browse the Internet from a flashlight, construct a microscope from a smartphone, and turn a washing machine into a wind turbine. Legos can even be trained to solve Rubik's cube. This is the kind of inventive play from which genius grows.

But too much electronic wizardry too soon can be too much. You don't have to follow the Luddites of 19th-century Britain, who threw wrenches into machinery to preserve their jobs as artisans, to be suspicious of allowing children to spend too much time with addictive electronics. Steve Jobs, the founding guru at Apple, was a self-confessed "low-tech parent."

When Nick Bilton, a high-tech journalist, asked Mr. Jobs whether his own children were as fascinated as everyone else with the iPad, he replied: "They haven't used it. We limit how much technology they use at home." Chris Anderson, a former editor of Wired, the technology journal, set strict time limits and parental controls on every device at home. "My kids accuse my wife and me of being fascists. They say none of their friends have the same rules. That's because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I don't want to see that happen to my kids."

Danielle George takes the long view. "I want young people to realize they can have the power to change the world right from their bedrooms, kitchen tables or garden sheds," she tells The London Daily Telegraph. Well, maybe. They can learn to fix a lot of things, but none of them could have done more than my mother to fix that little steam shovel.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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