Things Fall Apart

Last night two black, plastic electronic devices I wear on my person broke, leaving both essentially unusable. They still both function correctly, but can no longer be worn – they became static objects where mobility is one of their main reasons for being. These days the fact that our expensive electronic gadgets are perishable is hardly worth mentioning. We all know that our phones will crack, our X-Boxes will die and the hands of our watches will one day stop turning. It is a testament to our consumerist age, our relative wealth, and our lack of ecological awareness that this is shrugged off. Google even made this fact, that our plastic gadgets are essentially ‘throw away when used’ as a marketing tool for their Chrome Operating System. This is not to mention the dual problem of obsoleteness – the shoe box full of Minidiscs, Mini-DV camcorders, and myriad gaming consoles, stacked on top of the shelves full of VHS tapes never to be watched again as technology marches on.

My broken watch and headphones

This all struck me as within hours of each other my watch strap snapped and my headphones cracked. Now, watches are usually a fixable thing, but this watch in particular is the iconic Casio F-91W (a watch so ubiquitously cheap that I remember as a kid they were sellotaped to the front of Fairy Liquid bottles as a free gift – hence one Monday every child showing up in the yard at lunch time with the same watch…). It costs roughly 15 quid in Argos and has a plastic strap. The only way to fix it would be to replace one side of the stap and it strikes me that this would not be worth the time or money as it is so cheap. And so it goes; this is my 3rd Casio F-91W in 3 or 4 years. Almost annually this very same thing happens and I’ve become accustomed to simply wandering into the Jervis Shopping Centre and picking up another one. This habit started a few years ago and quietly became a standard practice.

For years I wore an expensive-ish heavy Casio G-Shock watch that served me well, until one day the latch got too loose and it was prone to fall off. I put it on my bedside locker and resolved to fix it. A few days passed and my long-held inability to feel right without a watch (despite the mini super computer sitting in my pocket which can tell me the time and a whole lot more) got to me and so I temporarily filled the void by buying a cheap replacement that had the added bonus of nostalgia and retro-hipster-chic. As a man who has always tried to put function-over-form I was set, and the old chrome G-Shock eventually gathered a layer of dust, until it was shuffled off to the dreaded shoe-box under the bed; the final resting place.

Then one day the F-91W went the way of the dodo – but this time there was no chance of recovery, so I simply replaced it. And thus I became a man who wore disposable watches. But it wasn’t the only such thing in my life. I had also become accustomed to going through headphones at an alarming rate – either through their natural disintegration (that moment when one speaker begins to cut out and you are on a long bus journey..noooooo) or through loss (I believe many a pub seat has ear-buds stuffed down between the cushions.) So I did the same thing as my watch – I would march into Tower records and pick up the very same pair again and again (I should note I do the same with runners and trousers – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

Last night, however, I was struck to think about this. Earlier this year I decided to test out some of the uber-hip “over the head big can-style” headphones that are all the rage. Tower have a helpful stand where you can plug in your own device to hear the difference. Once I heard Public Enemy’s paraolympic-anthem “Harder Than You Think” booming through a pair; the tinny, pathetic 15 quid ear-buds just didn’t cut it anymore. I decided to invest in a moderately priced, lower-end-but-still-relatively-expensive pair. After a brief moment of self-awareness where I wondered if I looked like a twat, I decided that sound quality trumped personal appearance.

I also thought that this was the end of my rampant headphone replacement schedule. How wrong I was when I took them off last night to feel them disintegrate in my hands, as my watch began to hang off my wrist. I realised how relaxed I had become with just consuming these plastic gizmos so rapidly and I felt a pang of guilt. Not only is this a waste of money, but I also felt like I was directly adding little blogs to the monstrous island of plastic living below the Pacific Ocean. The relative expense of the headphones annoyed me much more then my previous litany of watches and cheap ear-buds so I paused to reflect.

In thinking about my attitudes to property and waste etc. I realised that one of my main problems is the relative lack of respect I show these things. My things. I take off my headphones and just cram them into my pockets. My laptop gets tossed about freely and would make many Apple fanboys scream with its bumps and bruises, and my phone is not even one years old and sports the kind of crack that would send some people mad. I am relatively O.K. with this; I can’t stand phone covers or screen protectors – a device is designed to be used as is, I don’t want to wrap it up in a space suit to protect it from it’s user, but at the same time am I dooming myself to wasting money and resources constantly replacing them as I hurl them about. I am not anal about the aesthetics of these devices – in fact I feel like all tools they should bare the marks of usage, but is this at the expense of their lifespan?

This lack of respect I show I think stems from a culture of consumption and disposability. We are constantly made to want the latest thing. A phone is obsolete by the time you have got it home from the shop. Add this to the fact that such devices are simply not designed to last, and whilst trying to avoid the tin foil hat, are probably designed NOT to last, if you get me. The recent PhoneBloks idea (which I love but have to agree with others and say is almost certainly unrealistic) plays on these ideas. Electronic devices have become increasingly unfixable; especially things like computers, where the ability to customise and replace parts becomes harder and harder (Apple, of course, are the chief culprits here) and as we make things more and more out of moulded plastic they become inherently harder to fix. Of course, we have great things like sugru and 3D printing is promised to bring power back to the masses (let’s not talk about it’s effect on the giant plastic island, though) but these are minority interests. Most of us are not going to fashion a home made replacement for the tiny piece of plastic that just flew off our headphones. We are going to bin them and buy new ones. Like good consumers.

All of this is also a good reminder of impermanence. Things fall apart, nothing lasts forever, you cannot fight it. But this is not an excuse to then accept that and that we should devour more and more plastic goodies. Impermanence should make us consider how we consume and our attachment to these trinkets. I have no attachment to them as individual things because I do not mourn their passing but rather see them as imminently replaceable, but I am attached to them as ideas, as things I should own, and so I race to replace them.

These broken, sad bits of plastic sitting next to me as I type have made me think about my relationship with objects. My laptop is whirring away, starting to get a bit slow, and so I have entertained myself by looking at the latest treats on Apple’s website. It’s not that old though, and maybe I could swap out the hard drive for an SSD?

And when I’m done with that, I’ll dust off the old G-Shock under the bed and bring it down to the jewellers to get it fixed.