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Viewpoint: The confessions of a late adopter

  • 30 November 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Chips

Being a late adopter isn't a bad thing, it just means wanting to make the most out of stuff, argues Angela Saini.

I am what they call a late adopter. If you're wondering what that means, I'm slow at getting hold of the latest technology.

In fact, I usually buy my gadgets around the time that the cool kids have stopped using them altogether.

I don't have an iPad. I don't have a games console, unless you count the Nintendo 64 that my sister and I bought when we were teenagers and still keep in a shed somewhere. I only very recently upgraded my mobile phone.

People were giving me strange looks when I pulled this huge, plastic brick out of my handbag. It was the kind of phone that I could leave on a table in a bar and nobody would steal it because all it could do was make calls and send text messages. This year, I finally got a smartphone.

And, in the UK, in this century, that makes me a late adopter. You can think of me as the opposite of Stephen Fry, which is odd, because I'm a science journalist.

It's actually my job to be on top of new research and futuristic inventions. And I'm a real geek - I studied engineering. I even got to write computer code.

People expect me to know about every new gadget that comes out. I've got emails asking me what I think about the latest tablet computers - things I've heard of but have no intention of buying. Or at least not any time soon.

Today, when youth and newness seem to count for everything, I sometimes feel embarrassed to admit that I like old things. I like the worn-out leather chair in my study that I rescued from an office clearance. It doesn't bother me that it sags in the middle.

I like my old computer, even if it is a bit slow. It still does the job. I have a cathode ray tube television in my study that I've had since I was at university. It takes VHS tapes. I'm not even sure if you can still buy VHS tapes. But then, who needs a flatscreen when your boxy old television still works? I like old things.

And more than that, I like to fix stuff when it's broken. I'm not ashamed to say that I sew up the holes in my clothes. And I'd rather take my toaster to the repair shop when it's knackered than buy a new one.

In part, I get this from my parents. They've always been fixers and recyclers. It's not that they're cheapskates or worthy, they just grew up at a time and a place, in India, when stuff was scarce, and so they learned to share and make do. It became something of a habit for them.

When I needed a new dress my mum would drag out her old Singer sewing machine from under the desk and make me one exactly the way I wanted it. She made my prom dress when I was 18.

A member of Sigue Sigue Sputnik makes a telephone call, accompanied by Janet Street Porter
Only the size of the mobile indicates this photo was taken in the 1980s

This was before microelectronic gadgets - when appliances were big things, with screws around the back so you could open them up easily and fix them if you needed to. When people didn't throw things away just because they were old.

If this sounds like wartime Britain - make do and mend and all that - that's because, in a way it is. Fixing things and recycling in some places is a necessity, not a choice. In the developing world you can see it everywhere.

If you go to the slums of Africa and Asia, you'll find ragpickers and plastic sorters, oil drums cleaned up and reused, and advertising posters folded up and used as roofs on tin shacks.

I've visited electronic waste dumps - corners of developing world cities with warehouses filled up to the rafters with old computer monitors, fridges, and air conditioners. Dumped there from all over the world, they are being picked through by the poor to find useful bits of metal or wiring that they can reuse or resell.

The gadgets we think are useless, someone somewhere on the other side of the world will fix and change and cherish.

But with Christmas coming and the shops urging us to replace the things we own with new ones, it sometimes feels as though we're forgetting the value of old things. Today's gadgets are meant to be upgraded before they get even close to wearing out.

If you have one, just take a good look at your iPod now. Spin it around in your hand. You'll notice it doesn't have any screws. You're not supposed to open it or fix it.

Take mobile phones. On average we upgrade them every 18 months in Britain, even though they are such expensive little devices. We're encouraged to do this by our phone contracts, which offer us free upgrades.

Compare this with India, where one of the big mobile phone companies did some research and found that every phone will get used for at least seven years.

My mum taught me to sew and knit by the time I was 10. I can still remember getting my first pair of knitting needles and a bagful of yarn in soft, pastel bundles sealed with paper rings. I'd watch my grandma click up tiny cardigans and scarves for my baby sister and try to do the same.

My dad meanwhile, has always been a DIY fanatic - he built the wooden patio behind my parents' house in London and then cobbled together a bench from the leftover planks of wood. I inherited these handyman skills from him. It's the reason why - even though my husband doesn't like to admit it - I do the DIY in our flat.

Fixing, crafting and reusing old stuff is actually becoming quite fashionable these days. I don't just mean vintage clothes in charity shops. I mean something bigger than that. Take knitting, for instance. There are trendy clubs all over London now for young hipster knitters.

Woman carrying large phone in 1932
Martha could not wait for her next free upgrade

And there are other clubs for people who love sewing and crocheting. And groups for hackers and makers who secretly like to take old electronics apart and mash them together to make new ones.

In 2009, I went to the UK's first Maker Faire, which was in Newcastle. The Maker Faire is originally an American idea, I think, to get people together who like to make things. And today it's a huge movement.

All kinds of people turned up. Not just garden shed hobbyists, but children and graduates, women and men, from all kinds of backgrounds. There were crafters and hackers, working with everything from coloured pieces of felt to complicated little circuit boards.

At that point I hadn't picked up a soldering iron since I was at engineering school. When I was a student, our first-year project was to build an entire radio from scratch - not just the circuit but even bending sheets of metal to make the case. I hadn't done anything like that for ages, and I was swept away by the atmosphere at the Maker Faire.

I sat down and spent an hour building a tiny circuit of my own. I stitched thin wires together to build a pretty rough-looking device - it was an LED that changed colour when you waved your hand over it. I soldered for the first time since I was a student. And I can't even explain how proud I was of myself - I still have that light-changing circuit somewhere in a box, even though the battery stopped working a long time ago.

There's something about creating an object, however small, that's satisfying in a way that's almost impossible to explain. It's the way artists must feel. A bit of you goes into the object. If it's a wooden bench, it becomes your wooden bench. Even if it's a tiny, scrappy circuit that flashes a set of lights on and off when you wave your hand over it, it's your circuit. Your personality becomes woven into the way you made it.

But in the West at least, we seem to have lost this in favour of buying things new and ready-made. Politicians have made us believe that buying new things is good - that we shouldn't be miserly and hang on to our old possessions, our old appliances and our old clothes, but that we should toss them out the second they get worn and buy new ones - to keep the economy going.

But even though I understand the economic arguments for something like this, I can't help feeling there's something shifty about it. And I'm a science journalist, I love technological progress. I think it improves all our lives.

But why is it good to throw things out just because they're old? Why is the relentless conveyor belt of stuff that we let in and out of our lives so important that we're not allowed to slow it down, only force it to go faster?

This is why, in a way, making, knitting and crafting have become these days something of a counter-movement to consumerism. They're not just fun things to do, they're almost subversive.

Why should manufacturers tell us how our products should look, how long they should last, and what we can do with them? Why can't we fix them so they last longer, or even rip them apart and start again, if we want to? Why should we be told that we don't need screwdrivers?

Toshiba executive with videophone in 1968
This man was a very, very early adopter

Now, I'm not saying that my new smartphone hasn't been a welcome addition to my life. I love being able to check my emails on a train, for example.

But is my life really damaged by holding on to things a bit longer? I could understand it if I were a rocket scientist or an IT guru but I'm just a journalist. If my software is a few years old, it doesn't really matter.

More importantly than that, how is the planet even supposed to sustain the speed at which we throw things away and replace them with new ones? One day when the poor are rich and we all want a new mobile phone every 18 months what will happen to those old gadgets and fridges and air conditioning units piling up on enormous waste dumps?

We need new technology, there's no doubt, but the question is, how new? Can we resist the shiny and be satisfied with scuffed?

My mum still makes clothes for me occasionally. In fact when I was a child, the one new thing my mum wanted was a better sewing machine. One that would do all the fancy stitches and not snag so often. She never got it. I promised myself that one day I'd get her that sewing machine.

This year was supposed to be that year. It was my mum's birthday a few weeks ago. So I called her up to ask her what kind of sewing machine she wanted. She had something else in mind.

"There's this one thing I want," she said to me on the phone. "I've seen it in the shops and everyone has one now. I want an iPad."

This is an edited version of Angela Saini's Four Thought broadcast.

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