The Roberts R606-MB is a throwback to a time when cheap merely meant not overly expensive. I saved this radio from the skip because it was, to my mind, a beautiful thing. It had the sort of assured, mid-century styling that displayed quality through material and proportion rather than feature set or complexity. That and also the fact that when you plugged in, it worked – or after a fashion. It could grab a signal and push it out through the mono-speaker with little (given age and use) appreciable distortion. It had more trouble holding that signal, however, and would, whether after a few minutes or hours, decide to detune itself, slowly rolling the notes of whichever, presumably, distasteful song was playing into a warm bath of static. This could be alternately characterful or an annoyance.
I had no real intention of trying to fix the orphaned Roberts R606-MB, though its absent-minded wandering had recently begun to grate. I held the thing up to get a better look at it, to allow the light to interrogate its surfaces (metal, wood, leather, various brittle plastics) more closely. The base panel, seemingly fixed, was in fact easily removed by pulling it sideways and out of the invisible metal clips that held it in place. Beneath that a battery housing had the message: ‘WARNING – Do not operate on mains with this unit removed.’ To the side of this, where it did not reach the full width of the radio’s body, a metal tab with an up-turned lip invited pressure and, sliding free from a short plastic spur, allowed the battery housing to lift out. After decoupling two wires (green, red) this could be laid to one side, its power supply and transformer evident. The interior of the main body was now entirely accessible: fuses, transistors, coils and other less recognizable components. These were all arrayed along one simple circuit board upon the corner of which a sticker read: ‘WARNING – In the event of module failure please return to Roberts Co. LTD for replacement.’
What I found affecting was the generosity of this object, its openness. These aren’t abstract or theoretical terms but the simple relational factors of experience. That last, buried missive from the manufacturer was an expectation of visitors. It was also a positive sign that this was a thing that could be cared for and perpetuated. Despite the warding off, it was telling of past-attitudes that took purchased products as entirely amenable to the interference of the end user, attitudes of ownership that have since undergone serious transformation. The R606-MB made itself understandable in a way that was unfamiliar to me. The R606-MB was something in which I could be involved.
It was this sensation of ‘involvement’ that I was keen to explore, and with it, perhaps to take measure of repair’s relevance to attitudes of consumption and production. Did my experience have any value in the wider discussion of how design addresses its audience? If not, then what was conspicuous about its absence? My first thought was to see whether anyone still worked in that industry – was there still a living to be made out of repairing the things we took into our homes?
The repair shops that used to operate in the high streets of many towns and cities are now a rarity, most having given up or diversified to such an extent that repair now forms only a marginal portion of their business. I found Michael Maurice in the one place where those with such rarefied interest could find community - the specialists online message board. He was keen that I should visit him at his home and workshop, the base from which he travels out to assess and if possible, reconstitute the failing technology of those still inclined to keep rather than replace. Michael deals in ‘brown goods’, that is, home entertainment – hi-fis, dvd players, televisions and radios – but his job has become ever harder over the 26 years that he has been in the trade: the margins are smaller, the goods cheaper, the technology more complicated and the customer less willing to pay to fix something that may cost less if bought new. This last would seem to be the ultimate sticking point, a question of simple economics and low consumer expectations.
But, as Michael points out, it is not only demand side factors that drive this attitude. ‘There are no factories in electronics that want things repaired – for instance they’ll price a television at £400 and if you want to replace the screen they’ll offer to supply it to you, but for £1000’. Manufacturers also used to provide training programs for those third parties that wished to fix their products themselves, but five to ten years ago the last of these were beginning to shut down. Not only that, but the service manuals that were once widely available and through which anyone could learn the functioning of a particular product are now stored in restricted online databases. While these negative gestures may only seem to concern the enthusiast or professional, they are still a telling indication of an industry’s desire to create a knowledge barrier between the exterior and interior of the goods it supplies.
As it is, Michael tells me, he will be out of a job in five or six years. He already charges half of what he rightly should. He believes people are no longer interested in the services he offers or the skills base he has spent decades developing. After that, he says, he had no idea what he might do – ‘this is all I know’.
Talking to Michael, and hearing his glum prediction of impending obsolescence, put me in mind of a certain character, one Bud Calhoun, the prodigious engineer of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 debut, Player Piano. The novel is symptomatic of the prophesying of mid-century science fiction writers, those eager to use the hope and horror of technology’s mixed promise to colour an unknown future. It deals directly with the consequences of a society that pursues technological progressivism above all else. His depiction is an America of extreme social stratification along meritocratic lines, with those whose skills that are most easily replicated by mechanical counterparts, blue-collar workers in factory jobs, the first against the wall. The mass populace, now feckless and increasingly resentful of the machines that have usurped them, provide a perfect ground for fomenting the revolution into which the book eventually erupts. For Vonnegut the fulcrum of the man-machine debate is simple; it is a question of understanding. In one passage he describes the process by which the very first worker was, essentially, rendered impotent:
Paul unlocked the box containing the tape recording that controlled them all. The tape was a small loop that fed continuously between magnetic pickups. On it were recorded the movements of a master machinist turning out a shaft for a fractional horsepower motor...this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon – Rudy, the turner on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned…
In Vonnegut’s dystopia men’s movements are transferred to tape recordings that allow machines to mimic their dexterity and practical knowledge and then apply it with exponentially increased economy. Man completely gives himself over to machine, is subsumed within it, and thus makes himself inadequate, ineffective as anything but one-time originator. It is a process that allows one party to comprehend the other completely but then to refuse reciprocity.
This paradigm is most fully tested in the figure of Bud. As a gageteer, he is emblematic of American man’s limitless technological ingenuity - Bud can design and fix just about anything. Despite this, or even in spite of it, this ability is also his undoing:
‘Ah haven’t got a job any more’, said Bud. ‘Canned.’
Paul was amazed. ‘Really? What on earth for? Moral turpitude? What about the gadget you invented for –
‘That’s it,’ said Bud with an eerie mixture of pride and remorse.
‘Works. Does a fine job.’ He smiled sheepishly. ‘Does it a whole lot better than Ah did it.’
Like Bud, Michael’s expertise had, paradoxically, made him increasingly redundant. It is an obtuse situation: those best able to understand machines are made obsolete even as that technology gathers in influence. Aged 14, Michael had discovered a magazine called Practical Wireless and soon after, its sister publication, Practical Television. This last contained a course instructing you in how to build your own colour set. Despite appeals, his parents refused to allow him to attempt the challenge, not only because of the daunting complexity of schematics and diagrams, but also that the £400 cost of the components was, in 1972, almost as much as factory made model. ‘You didn’t get the kudos of being able to say that you built it yourself, however.’ This was indicative of a deep desire, a need to know how something worked that lead Michael into a career in which his skills have been entirely self-taught through studying manuals and trial and error.
While the newest machines tend to be designed in such away that if one component goes, it often has to be scrapped, ‘old stuff can usually be repaired, there’s very little of it that can’t’. This is where Michael’s job crosses over with his passion for returning vintage television and audio equipment back to full working order. Out the back, in his workshop, he points to an imposing looking black and white set that he’s been looking forward to working on. On the other side of the room is a stack of early portable record players, the type that come interred in their own thick hardwood cases. Occasionally someone with a similar fascination but less expertise will contact him to resurrect a piece to which they are particular attached, paying far above the odds to see it put back to right. At the fringes, if only, there is still this occasional moment of recognition, not just of the worth of an object repaired, but also the act of reparation itself.
As Player Piano closes out, Vonnegut explores this same, ineluctable drive. After the uprising, during which every machine to hand has been violently decommissioned and with the authorities circling, the defacto leaders of the revolution survey the destruction they have enacted. They happen upon a group of excited citizens gathered around a vending machine, engrossed by Bud’s attempts to fix the thing:
The man had been desperately unhappy then. Now he was proud and smiling because his hands were busy doing what they liked to do best, Paul supposed – replacing men like himself with machines.
Vonnegut’s novel thus ends in the exasperation of an unresolvable question. While their leaders may have wished to live out some Luddite fantasy of open-fire cooking and hand-washed shirts - a therapeutic disavowal of technology - the revolutionary mass is satisfied in recombining those things that they have just torn apart. It is a tentative suggestion that instead of either rampant progressivism or wholesale conservatism, what is desired is the mutual understanding of symbiotic relationship, the back and forth of a practical discourse.
The novel is also incredibly prescient, not in its representation of an entirely mechanised future, a depiction that is unavoidably rooted in the imagination of its decade, but in the offhand prediction by the book’s lead character, Dr Paul Protius:
Of course you’re right. It’s just a hell of a time to be alive, is all – just this goddamn messy business of people having to get used to new ideas…I wish this were a hundred years from now, with everybody used to change.
It is a sentiment that speaks directly to our contemporary relationship with technology, of generations born beyond the development of the computer and entirely unimpressed by its pervasion. It is a position that has largely forgotten those first abstract fears, but also the wonder and active desire for machine interaction that gives both Michael and Bud Calhoun such profound pleasure. Neither, however, are as atavistic as they had first appeared to me. Increasingly they represent the role models for those now rediscovering the joy of taking the mutely packaged items with which we are all encumbered and fashioning them into something more expressive. They aren’t technically repair men or women, nor interested directly in manufacture, but have pulled a term across the digital divide to best explain their interest – they call themselves hackers.
Hacking as a culture has taken that ethos of the crusading (or to some, cavalier) digital counterpart, a creature of codes and keys, and mixed it with the rather less glamorous world of the do-it-yourself home improvement fads of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Its operatives are the sort of people who spent their child hood making tin-can-and-string phones or water pistols out of soda bottles and bicycle pumps. Now that they have grown up they are turning their washing machine into a go-kart or rewiring the central heating. They refuse to sit blankly in front of so many unresponsive boxes and sealed possessions, instead they are intent to repair and improve. The parameters that they work against are also the same as those of their titular predecessors- it’s all a question of access and permission. Access is simply parsed as the extent to which the manufacturer or designer might want to keep you out, and the tricks, blocks and solvent based glues they use to police your property. Permission is a more nuanced, if related, concept. Online it would read as the level of clearance and, thus, agency given to a user. Real world questions are instead phrased as: How much ‘permission’ do I feel I have to tamper with the goods that I have purchased? From what position is that implication of authority directed? Where does the knowledge exist that would let me approach this object on equal terms? WILL IT VOID MY WARRANTY? As Vonnegut’s lead proposed, most of us are now simply used to a change that we interpret as permission denied. The hacking culture is such a proposal’s staunch riposte.
Make Magazine is a print and online publication that has come to act as a fulcrum for the hacking movement, providing a central community and knowledge base for disaffected consumers. It could even be described as a technosavy antecedent of Michael’s own Practical Television. It voices its dissent with the blithe assertion that ‘if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.’ This is the sub-heading to their manifesto, A Maker’s Bill of Rights (and that they choose the manifesto form gives you an idea of the communities self-perception), lines of which include: ‘Components, not entire sub-assemblies, shall be replaceable’, ‘Schematics shall be included and Consumables, like fuses and filters, shall be easy to access.’ There is a healthy air of indignation about these declarations, as the rhetoric of the title forewarns, and if these rights have no real claim to authority, then the manifesto seeks to propagate the change that will make it so.
But beneath these left-field projects runs a fundamental interest in re-engaging with an environment many of us dismiss as incomprehensible. Scott Burnham, a leading interpreter of the movement explains, ‘the emergence of a hacking culture which is now responding to the physical rather than the digital is evidence of a public will to repurpose the objects they own and of a desire for a new relationship with the objects and systems they buy and use’. It is an attitude that sees such objects not as closed but contingent upon the interactions and needs of both user and good. Hacking is a response to the intense occlusion and uncommunicative nature of the things with which we are now surrounded. Its practices are based on a desire for an intense knowing of our owned objects and a happy disregard for cultural and technical barriers of permission.
Looking for further clarity, I asked Burnham how he might characterise this drive in terms of ‘understanding’:
Understanding is key, as is emotive relationships. These are important, but another thing I think it is tapping into is the simple human emotion of connection…we want to open, we want to connect with the things that surround us. So we repair, we hack, we find alternate use - part to understand, part to connect. Both are vitally important. If you think of the popularity of "behind the scenes" or "making of" DVD features and TV shows - we want to understand what is presented to us. These are effectively opening the source code of these forms of entertainment.
If hacking is indicative of changes in attitude, it is still necessarily post-production, with users working against the intentions of the original author. Michael’s assessment was clear in that it saw manufacturers as being complicit in hastening the withdrawal of any holistic comprehension of the goods we purchased from them, but were the designers they employed so recalcitrant? A designer’s first inclinations could not be so far from those who are galvanised by The Maker’s Bill of Rights, so why was this not evident at the storefront? One answer remains the omnipresent pressures of cost, margin and profit, but we might look even earlier in a designer’s development, before such restrictions take full force.
The Raspberry Pi, a basic personal computer no bigger than a credit card and costing less than a couple of DVDs, was recently launched by a UK based initiative. While it has impressive specifications, in its unsheltered, bare circuit board construction it appears as something you might more likely find protruding from the back of a broken VCR. It is as honest looking a piece of technology as you might find. Created in response to one tutor’s frustration that students with an interest in computer science arrived at university knowing very little about the actual workings of the machines they had spent years using, its aim is to offer an affordable and approachable device on which school children can learn to program. This reminded me of an article I had read, one that covered Kenneth Grange’s recent retrospective, and contained a small paragraph that mentioned a long held fasciation Grange had with idea of setting up a course in repair, to bring that idea right in to learning process.
The sense communicated by the article was a little off, Grange told me – there was to be no course and the idea was rather inchoate – but it was truly a proposition that fascinated him. He described what he saw as the ‘near-intellectual reward in pursuing repair, quite apart from how much better you feel…there is quite an interesting forensic problem in understanding products before you go about repairing them, which from a product designer’s point of view is hugely useful’. When he was a boy, Grange said, a weekly job in his grandmother’s house was to open the back of the radio in order to remove the battery; this would be taken down to a shop to be swapped out for a pre-charged replacement. Even that simple job of‘disconnect[ing] the terminals, that was the beginning of a relationship between the maker and a repair process’. It lead, he ventured, to an interest in knowing what other components might fail and have to be replaced, and from that the skills needed to work on the thing yourself. Those shops, the ones in which you might not only buy your television, radio or white good, but also return to have any malfunction addressed, provided a vital link. If this was not quite between the manufacturer and consumer directly, it was at least with an operative conversant in the objects proper handling. You knew that even if it was beyond your own ability, there was someone down the road that likely had the answer, to whom the machine was not a mystery. ‘That’s the nub of it. My repair enthusiasm would attempt to resurrect those kind of places’. Design that accounts for repair in such a way, from conception to corruption is a wonderfully magnanimous gesture; it is an extended hand instead of a firm rebuttal.
Grange stated that, at its core, his enthusiasm stemmed from a belief that repair is in some way ‘an honourable pursuit…[even] that it is a moral pursuit’. At first I felt a little uneasy about these terms, that they were too grandiose or too onerous - but why not? There is a lot at stake, not only the obvious issues of sustainability and economy but also, to use another onerous term, of fulfilment, of actually caring about and for your possessions. That isn’t materialistic and it’s not indulgent. As Grange reiterated throughout our conversation, it is a question of honour; repair demands understanding and respect between people and things, and between producers and consumers. It is an assertion of kinship that stands as a mark of conviviality. This, then, is the reason that I still return to my finicky, petulant Roberts radio, waiting for it to trip up and then undoing the case to inspect its array of transistors. Now, however, I return in the knowledge that such curiosity isn’t nostalgic or misplaced, but an attitude central to contending with a present articulated by technology.