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Recently I have witnessed again how our service (especially after-sales service or repair services) don’t work. In one case installing cooling capabilities to already existing heating system was beyond technician’s knowledge or possibilities. In another, broken circuit board costing in Radio Shack in range of 10 dollars was not possible to replace in one of the house-hold appliances, customer was advised to buy new device.

This happens now everywhere. Harvard Business Review had a cartoon depicting technical support technician giving the following advice to some customer calling him: “If it is broken, buy new one”. This is not a joke. It is reality.

I have already written about Apple practices of simply replacing its broken devices either free of charge when those are under warranty or for a fee if those are not. Old, broken devices are then what? Thrown away? Recycled? (whatever that means).

Why is that? I think that great part of explanation of this “throw away” phenomenon (or charging for parts and repair sums close to the value of a new appliance) is in the book I have read recently: “The Zero Marginal Cost Society” by J. Rifkin. In it Mr. Rifkin stipulates that cost of manufacturing nears zero. More and more of stuff we use is made by companies which have managed to (one of the principles of capitalism) drive their costs down as much as possible through cheaper labour, better processes, use of robotics, etc. Capitalism in itself (a paradox) drives costs of goods down. Workers – representing still the biggest chunk of the cost – are being laid off and replaced with automation wherever possible or cheaper workers. The truth is that those savings on the side of manufacture of goods is not being passed on to customers, especially in case of products with fashion or social status attached to them. The prices are left the same or are relatively higher. On the other end in developed countries technicians and other skilled workers are more and more expensive due to social and worker laws. It does not take a genius to see that it makes much more sense to force people to buy more instead of employing someone with enough knowledge to actually repair that thing.

Where in all this comes creativity? On one side creative service technician should be able to suggest ways to repair a device, even using parts offered by other vendors. That cannot be done by someone employed by single specific vendor, obviously. Those vendors limit such creativeness with their procedures – technicians have clear rules what can be done and what not. Mostly ensuing discussions end with “buy a new one”. Or other one. From us, of course. On the other hand, creativity may cause others to make products replacing those with obvious problems. Or someone may figure out how to make spare parts cheaper – that happens slowly already in 3D printing or in household or car industries. Much too slowly, if you ask me.

I think that you already figured out how all this influences job market. Since machines (or automation) replace people, goods are cheap to make, and no one wants to repair them, who needs people? Not everyone can be super-creative, intelligent, expensively educated… Group of people without hopes for any job grows and it will grow even more.

Do I have a solution? No. In competitive – not collaborative – society there is no such solution. You care only for yourself and your family. If you are lucky enough to have a job and belong to group of people with jobs which are still too expensive (or not possible) to be replaced by machines, then you are OK for a time. But if not, you have almost no chance of getting out. Unless you get together and create. Rifkin states in his book that many observe rise of collaborative commons – people pull together and work together to sustain their own group, but that requires cultural change from competition to collaboration on our side, from our own initiative. Interesting where this all will take us… Why? Think – if cost of goods (at least making them) will near zero and people are the biggest cost factor, then people will go. Who will then buy those goods and for what?

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