I bought this radio at RadioShack today. It’s am/fm, single speaker, no headphone jack and with a pull out antenna. What was left of the store, now famously in the death throes of bankruptcy, was being run by a guy I’d never seen before – all of the regular guys I’d gotten to know over the years were already gone.
That this guy didn’t care was obvious: he wore a stained t-shirt, a pair of ill-fitting jeans and dirty sneakers, and told me repeatedly and without any prompting that his store had already been closed, and that this was great because he got more money somehow working in another store that was closing. I don’t think he grasped the bigger picture and I didn’t tune in on the details, mostly because – and this sounds odd – I had sort of a heavy heart.
You see, the passing of RadioShack marks if not a nadir in the direction of our so-called culture, at least another landing between floors as we make our way downward. And here’s why.
RadioShack used to be a magical sort of place. the sort of place that catered to tinkerers of all kinds. If you were imaginative, and you had an idea to make something – no matter what it was – you could probably find the parts you needed to give it a go at RadioShack.
A very small odd piece of wire, or circuitry, or tools that you couldn’t find anywhere else, well, you knew that you could probably find them at RadioShack. And it wasn’t just for electronics projects: RadioShack was, in many ways, an incubator’s cupboard.
I’ll bet that back in the day Jobs and Wozniak, or Bill Gates, were regulars at their local RadioShack. They didn’t buy pre-made: they were assembling a dream, and just needed some parts.
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Think about that for a moment. Step back and look at it from a 50,000 foot view and you know what you’ll see? Something we’re losing – or have, possibly, already lost.
You see, if you couldn’t find exactly what you needed, there were enough parts to figure out a workaround – and you had both the plasticity of intellect to attack the problem, and the patience to see it through.
And it is that very mindset that is fast evaporating today.
Simply put, we are now groomed to consume, and educated toward narrow-channel universal tests. Our children are drilled on so-called ‘informational’ texts that imply veracity of content, and subtly promote the acceptable value of the practical over the extraordinary excitement inherent in the ‘possible’. A world in which literature, art and music is merely a soft expression, a dalliance, or indulgence with little ‘real’ value, unless it’s quantified or expressed in monetary terms.
A disposable and fast-moving culture that consumes, rather than creates.
Sure, the company made mistakes, but the biggest mistake they made was trying to be like everyone else. To compete with other homogenized retail behemoths rather than having the fortitude to focus on what they did best — provide inspiration and tools for the next generation of creators, not just consumers.
They tried to play the parity provider game, and that game always ends in shrinking margins and defeat.
And it’s sad, because they’ll be at best a footnote to history. We’ll fast becoming unable to tinker, even with the latest and greatest. Need proof? Apple used to be a company that let you pull open your machine and modify it as your needs and interests evolved – you could pull off the side panel and make a Frankenstein machine with multiple drives and raid arrays and workarounds – and the damn things lasted forever.
But at some point the shareholders and accountants put profit ahead of people and instead moved toward the planned obsolescence and continual upgrade cycle model. The edges were forever sealed, leaving only their marketing to mine the richness of a past culture and turn it into a messaging veneer that insisted that they were still rebels and different thinkers. And that you (and millions of others) were part of this countercultural tribe, or could be, if you bought in.
Today I’d need a clam knife to crack open my iMac (I’ve thought about it), and even then wouldn’t know what to do with what’s inside. Same thing with the new Samsung S6 – can’t swap out that media or battery anymore, no sirree.
“Just consume, dear sheep, and buy the S7 when it’s ready”.
So back to my new radio…
It’s the kind of radio that you would take somewhere, and maybe put on a shelf in the garage while you were tinkering. Background music to be shared with real friends in real time – not just plugged in, solitary and distant – while you learned through trial and error how communicate with one another. And while you worked to build something real, and to remain flexible and creative and adaptable and true.
And maybe, just maybe, make something that would last. Something that – if it didn’t change the whole world – had already at least changed yours.
Something that couldn’t be bought complete to someone else’s standard but instead, like those things that really matter in the end, had to be built.