Why can’t you fix it?

By Charles Miller

A regular part of my job as a computer technician is acting as a grief counselor when I have to break the news to clients that their beloved computer has a fatal illness or already has gone to that great internet café in the sky. The question invariably is asked: “Why didn’t it last longer?” or “Why did it wear out?” or “Why can’t you fix it?”

Attempting to answer any of those questions could lead you, as it did me, to Fire Station 6 at 4550 East Avenue in Livermore, California. I did not actually visit in person but via the internet, and I will share the web address anyone can visit. The significance of this fire station is its entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

In 1901 Dennis Bernal, who owned the Livermore Power & Light Company, donated to the local Volunteer Fire Department a hand-blown light bulb manufactured by the Shelby Electric Company. This was at a time when very few homes had electric wiring installed and the price of one light bulb was a very significant investment. Today that bulb is still burning, at least I hope it is, and you can check this out right now by pointing your web browser to www.centennialbulb.org. This web page is where you will find a live webcam, updated every few minutes, pointed at the world’s oldest light bulb. The web site explains how this lamp has now outlasted three television cameras aimed at it, and that last fact brings up the question of “planned obsolescence.” Why is it that three modern webcams have worn out at that California fire station while the 113-year-old light bulb just keeps on burning and burning?

I once read that the estimated development cost in the 1870s for the first generation light bulbs was about US$8,000 dollars each. By 1893 Reginald Fessenden had invented a double-stopper bulb, the cost of which I have not been able determine. Still expensive enough, they were not thrown away when they burned out but were taken to the repair shop, where a new filament was installed so the glass bulb could be reused. Eventually mass production brought the cost of light bulbs down spectacularly; yet I can imagine that there were some people who were slow to accept the new paradigm. They probably took a burned out bulb to the hardware store saying “I shouldn’t have to pay 25 cents for a whole new bulb! Why can’t you just fix this one for a nickel?” I feel sure that conversation must have taken place sometime, because of the number of times today owners ask about repairing dilapidated old computers when it is far more economical to replace them.

In many people’s mind the term “planned obsolescence” raises the specter of conspiracy, a shadowy scheme by manufacturers to make deliberately-shoddy products, so people will have to pay to buy them more often. That can never be proved, but one thing for sure is that manufacturers cannot be compelled by legislation to make a better product. This has always and will always be dictated by the demand of the market.

Consumer demands dictate both price and quality. I have not been able to locate any source of US$5,000 bulbs guaranteed to last 100 years, but the consumer who wants to spend five thousand dollars or more on a new laptop is in luck. There are several manufacturers, which sell ruggedized laptops designed to last as long as possible.

Ask any computer technician – who will tell you the average lifespan of a consumer-grade personal computer is two to three years. Some units last much longer, and a few fail to last that long. Higher-quality and longer-lasting computers are available to anyone who wants to spend a lot of extra money; but most consumers have made the decision that spending less money on computers makes more sense, and for this reason manufacturers produce five hundred dollar laptops.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.


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