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The Future of Repair

The Future of Repair

By Tim Rohde

The “disposable society” is taking a well-deserved beating from more and more people these days. The scourge of our environment, our pocketbooks and our souls may be headed, itself, for the dustbin of history. The forces pushing back against the disposable society come from some familiar and some surprising origins. The ecological imperative has finally hit the mainstream. The “maker” and diy (do-it-yourself) movements are fostering a new enthusiasm for individuals to work with their hands. And several sites on the Internet have made it easier to find qualified repair professionals. All of this is converging with what appears to be a long-term need for average Americans to tighten their belts. While there are plenty of companies that have yet to catch on, repair is back and it’s here to stay.

Of all the long-term trends favoring repair over disposal, none is more compelling than the fate of the planet. Every year in the U.S., alone, over 200 million tons of trash go into landfills. Over 63 million computers are disposed of. Over 148 million functioning (or repairable) cell phones are dumped. Cameron Church of Conergy Deutschland GmbH once told me, “Remember, REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE are listed in order.” Repairing things indirectly reduces the need for new items and directly supports reuse. While the U.S. is doing an increasingly good job of recycling, the opportunities for keeping repairable items in service is only now being explored in earnest by the mainstream.

This mainstream is divided into two camps: those who are more likely to hire a repair professional and those who are more likely to do it themselves. The world of professional repair has been enjoying significant expansion and enrichment due to new Web resources that promote and critique various services. Resources like Angie’s List, Service Magic and Yelp have brought much needed light to the world of repair services. These sites provide the ability for consumers to publish feedback about their service experiences. While this may seem harsh at first, it rewards quality and excellence by weeding out service people who undermine the public’s trust, thus clearing the field for better service providers. This increases the likelihood that a consumer will get something effectively fixed and ready to continue providing value.

This type of improvement is a predictable outcome of the information efficiencies we’ve come to expect from the Internet. We can file this under business-growth-through-efficiency, but there is another kind of emergent growth happening that is both more surprising and more inspiring:  the do-it-yourselfer is back and has been transformed into part cultural icon, part helpful info source, part performer….

The leaders in mainstreaming do-it-yourself repair are found in the diy (do it yourself) movement. One of their favorite haunts is the FIX section of diy.com.  diy.com averages more that 150,000 unique visitors per month and is only one of many sites in the diy universe. Combine this with the 105,000 YouTube videos about repair and the 3,600,000 pages returned in a Google search of the term “diy repair” and you’ve got a whole lot of action around individuals repairing things. These resources run the gamut from highly informative and very ernest help to hilarious, don’t-try-this-at-home events. The common thread among these performances and articles is that something interesting comes from something broken or unused.

An even greater commitment to reuse (often through repurposing material) is found in the “maker movement.” Celeste Headlee’s succinct description of the maker movement says it best: “On a basic level, the movement is about reusing and repairing objects, rather than discarding them to buy more. On a deeper level, it’s also a philosophical idea about what ownership really is.” She goes on to paint the picture of this philosophy of ownership, namely – IF YOU CAN’T REPAIR SOMETHING, YOU DON’T REALLY OWN IT. The maker movement has a bill of rights which has caught the eye of several large industry players. It has a vibrant, interesting niche press lead by Make Magazine. It has Maker Faires that have now spread to every populated continent. They are celebrations of human ingenuity that honor some of the wildest artistic and engineering achievements executed with materials and objects that were discarded by the disposal-happy culture at large. These events are part science fair, part geekfest, part Burning Man… Note to world: this is not a fad.

Regardless of how much staying power and sustainability is built into the diy and maker movements, their impact on the future would likely be small, if not for the current economic decline. The ranks of committed diyers and makers has certainly swelled but, more importantly, the ranks of those who otherwise wouldn’t repair things has grown with the economic downturn. These new do-it-yourselfers search the Internet for answers and run into more than the Home Depot website. They find this new, vibrant culture that celebrates fixing things and making things. That convergence alone has the potential to reinvigorate the latent strains of self reliance and creativity that so strongly characterize the American past and deliver a new class of hands-on creators to the future.

Tim Rohde is Co-founder/Publisher & COO of the-future.com.

Spinning into the Future

April 15, 2013 MAN & MACHINE No Comments
Spinning into the Future

By Prof. Paul Padley

Department of Physics and Astronomy

Rice University

Electronics works by taking advantage of one of the properties of fundamental particles: electric charge. Particles have many other properties as well, and there is a real possibility that those properties can be harnessed in order to develop new technologies. One such property is called “spin” and harnessing spin could play a key role in the future of electronics.

Nobody really understands the spin of fundamental particles, such as the electron. However, we can routinely measure it and use it. The electron, and other basic particles in nature, act as if they were spinning tops. We can do measurements in which we calculate their angular momentum — or how much they are spinning. We can put electrons in magnets and flip their spins.  Spin

So, why doesn’t anybody really understand that? There are a couple of reasons: To the best of our knowledge, the electron is an infinitely small-point particle. In our current theories, the electron has zero size and, to date, nobody has been able to measure its “size,” experimentally. How is it that something without any size can be spinning?  String-theory attempts to overcome this by postulating that particles are little bits of string in a multi-dimensional space – but, to date, there is no experimental evidence that string theory is correct. In any case, I am not sure that a 10-dimensional string is any easier to think about than an infinitely small, spinning particle.

It gets event stranger. First, I have to explain how to describe the direction of spin. If something is rotating, I can wrap the fingers of my right hand in the direction of the rotation.  If I then stick my thumb out from my hand, I say the direction of my thumb defines the spin.  So, if I am riding my bicycle forward, and I describe the rotation of my wheels in this way, my thumb points to the left.

What is strange about the spin of the electron is that when I describe it this way, my thumb will only point up or down.  It can’t point at an angle; it can’t be tilted.

Otto Stern

Otto Stern

Walter Gerlach

Walter Gerlach

[ … Why can’t the electron spin point at an angle? That is one of the mysteries of the universe. This weird spin of the electron was first measured in the 1920s (by Otto Stern and Walter Gerlach -- http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/spin.html ) and has been repeatedly confirmed by experiment, ever since.  It makes my head hurt, and my students heads, too -- this exact question was being asked of me by my students last week (I teach quantum mechanics to junior physics majors).

One of the most important things that makes science different from other ways of knowing is that we have to use what we learn from experiment, whether we understand it or not. So we can write down equations that describe how electron spin will behave.  We can use those equations to predict the electron's behavior so well that we can make electronic (or spintronic) devices, using this description. But we don’t actually know how it comes about or why it is there. So I know the electron will always be measured to be spinning up or down, and not tipped at an angle, but I can’t tell you why. Wish I could (it would get me a Nobel Prize)…. ]

I always measure that the electron is spinning either up or down, no matter how I measure it. In fact, spin is predicted by relativistic quantum mechanics (the combination of quantum mechanics with Einstein’s special theory of relativity). So, perhaps I misspeak when I say nobody understands it  – we can write down the math behind it but, unfortunately, our brains can not picture what it means.

That spin has this property, that it can only take definite directions, is what makes it interesting for electronics. We can use spin to record information and manipulate it to do calculations. There is a whole field of electronics research called “spintronics” that is pursuing this idea. The most likely first application is in memory chips — a technology referred to as “mram,” which is approaching commercialization.  For example, IBM and Toshiba have announced that they are close to producing such chips.

There is an important lesson for the future, here. The concept of spin grew out of work in the 1920s in quantum mechanics. Without the basic science that was conducted almost 100 years ago, the new technologies being developed today would not be possible. The physicists who discovered this amazing property of fundamental particles were not  trying to develop technologies, they were just trying to understand the smallest constituents of matter. Without speculative, basic scientific research, technological progress stops. However, it can be a long time until that basic research bears fruit.

Dr. Paul Padley is professor of physics at Rice University, and a lead physicist of experimental research for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN

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