Holistically broken

Published on 2023-12-30

When something breaks, what does it take to fix it?

I was thinking of the seemingly obvious example of someone blasting a cattle gun through your smart phone. Okay, so, your smartphone is a thin rectangle, and now there's a large hole through the middle of it. What would it take to get it up and running again?

This is probably where most repair people would throw in the towel, but I don't think this is actually all that absurd. Yes, it may cost more money to fix it than to just by a new one, but how can we quantify the value of a relationship, really?

I got my current laptop for free through a subsidy program back in high school. I love this thing quite a bit, and probably would spend money to fix it, even though it's not worth any money for most intensive purposes and I do have other old laptops kicking around that I could use.

So, let's think about that rectangle. Well, you'd have to do a full inventory on all the components. Presumably, there's at least a few parts that weren't touched. If the device was turned off when it got hit by the cattle gun, then they might have been unaffected by electrical damage. Take those parts and put them aside.

The individual parts that have a large hole in them, well they probably aren't coming back. Computers are sufficiently complicated that it seems unlikely to me that any single person would know how to get from a motherboard with a large hole beaten through it back to a working, hole-less motherboard.

Then there's the case. The case also has a hole in it, but that's just a piece of metal that could potentially be patched.

In the end, all is not lost, even if quite a bit of it is.

We have a bit of a Ship of Theseus situation here, though I've always been inclined to believe the things we encounter in the world are larger than just their material properties. By salvaging what we can and replacing what we can't we can resurrect the smart phone in a way that might have seemed impossible at first.

This is a bit of an extreme example, but I do often run into the problem of seeing something broken as being "holistically" broken, when in reality it's only a small limiting factor preventing it from reaching its full potential.

One problem I'm actually facing right now has to do with this old Macbook Air I own. It's one of the ones with the butterfly keyboards. Over time, the keys have been failing on me. Just recently, it seems like the power key gave in too. While the computer is otherwise perfectly operable, the fact that I can't use the power button prevents me from being able to turn it on.

Fixing a lot of these "single limiting factor" brokenness issues requires a strong understanding of how things work under the hood. With software, I've gotten pretty comfortable dealing with these issues, but when they have to do with hardware, I never know where to start. I hope this year I'll have the time and energy to learn more, to start fixing things myself.

I'm not the only one who mistakes limiting factors for holistic brokenness. It seems pretty characteristic of consumerism in general: if it doesn't work, replace it. Not to mention, I see people taking these attitudes to themselves and others all the time.

It's quite rare that things are actually holistically broken. It's hard to form a real relationship with anything when everything is one fault away from being disposable.

Respond to this article

If you have thoughts you'd like to share, send me an email!

See here for ways to reach out