Tinkering isn’t dead, but it is changing

When Radio Shack announced its bankruptcy, I read more fears that the age of tinkering is dead than I read laments for the store.

I follow the logic, because Radio Shack was the only national store chain that ever tried to cater to tinkerers. But I don’t think people abandoning Radio Shack means tinkering is necessarily dead. I have plenty of indications that it’s still very much alive, but it’s also very different from how it used to be.

Many of the eulogies for Radio Shack blame Apple, because Apple products made since 2008 are extremely difficult to repair yourself. But that’s not really a new trend, and even in the 1980s, if you had a broken Apple II you weren’t going to find much in the way of usable parts at Radio Shack. I’m having a hard time blaming this one on Apple.

Apple went after a different market. In the 1980s, Radio Shack made its money by selling good-enough electronics at a reasonable enough price to people who didn’t have easy access to anything else. In the 1980s, a nice stereo system was something people aspired to own. Few people lived near a high-end audio store, but almost everyone lived within 30 minutes of a Radio Shack, which would happily sell you stereo components with their Realistic house brand on it. Likewise, few people lived near a Computerland or another high-end computer dealer, but Radio Shack had a couple of computer lines and a selection of software for you. By 1984, they could even offer you an IBM-compatible PC if that was what you wanted.

The back half of the store full of electronic components was nice, but Radio Shack was making its money selling computers and stereos, not breadboards and transistors. That was a sideline.

There are fewer user-serviceable parts in today’s electronics than there used to be. But the most failure-prone components today are the same as they ever were–capacitors and regulators. And unlike that CRT television you had in 1985, if your flat-panel TV of today breaks, you can open up the flat panel to fix it without risking your life in doing so. Because of that, there’s a myriad of Youtube videos that show you how to open up your specific model of TV, show you the most failure-prone components, provide you a link where you can buy the parts, and show you how to de-solder them and replace them.

I can also tell you that anything I write about repairing a reasonably recent laptop or tablet always proves to be popular.

The continued success of small, low-power computers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi point to a thriving tinkerer community as well. Buying a small board rather than soldering a microcontroller to a breadboard is a different level of tinkering, but it also means you don’t have to be able to solder in order to create something.

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