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Activism takes many forms: You can take to the streets, but you can also take to your workshop and innovate - to provoke and demonstrate what needs to change. Actions often speak louder. Plus, I spoke to Ken Pillonel on his viral USB-C hack iPhone.
As part of a series of articles, this one will focus on:
- While considering what Activism looks like in Engineering, a perfect example of this would be Ken Pilonell, who provocatively hacked an iPhone to be ‘compliant’ with the more universally compatible USB-C. His video went viral and he continues to make work which questions the ethics of corporations worldwide.
- The aesthetic of being ‘perfect’ vs design ethics.
Interview with Ken Pillonel, Hardware Prototyper and YouTuber - on Right to Repair in Tech.
How it started...Engineering Projects, with an Activist approach...
At the time I was working on Air Quality and Flood Alert projects with DesignSpark, we were discussing a term we were trying to coin: ‘ Activist Engineering’, as a theme that connected all these projects under one call-to-action; as something that spoke to the ‘hearts and smarts’ that many engineers possess - but filtered by the notion that they are creating something that provokes a change in the world. It was co-developed alongside projects on Air Quality and Covid Awareness, and has a project on Flood Alerts in the works. The idea is to invite engineers to use their professional skills and passion for problem-solving to provoke or indeed create change.
As is often the way when primed to ‘spot’ things, for example - when you are in the thick of an intense project - certain people, books or films jump out at you. Ken Pillonel created a video which I felt spoke to this combination of Engineering and Activism - he hacked an iPhone to have a USB-C port, (rather than an Apple Lightning cable). A small battle you may think, but it said a lot when he proved how it can be done and the rest as they say is history, with his video going viral - and it’s not a stretch to say Apple engineers (and marketeers) may have noticed it as yet another sign the public is not really behind them on this. [Full disclosure, I own Apple products, but this certainly irritates me]. It’s somewhat telling that there was no mention of this in their recent Mother Nature advert which tells a cute story but some may feel that such a tech giant could initiate more fundamental, industry-leading changes.
Anyway, Ken and I caught up on his thoughts around design and his motivation behind picking the David and Goliath fight, and truly, his work is a tour de force on how to teach yourself how to interrogate a design challenge, and communicate it to an audience, who may not be very tech-savvy, but can get the gist, whilst the pros are equally impressed by his tenacity and rigour to get the job done with aplomb.
Interview with Ken.
Above: Ken and I on Zoom. Amazing what can come out of small workshops!
Since recording my video with Ken (in July 2023), Apple have released the iPhone 15 (in Sept 2023) - but with a paltry USB 2.0 standard, essentially putting it at 2001 performance (480Mbps), rather than the modern high speed spandard (10Gbps) for USB 3.0 standard. I’m sure Tim Cook has some well crafted PR lines on this, but it’s hard not to feel like a sulk, given their pedigree and track record of typically using the most up to date - and often industry-leading - in new connectivity.
Above: Ken Pillonel's final USB-C 'hack' (this predated the iPhone 15 by a year - which ended up having a USB-C port).
Apple is well known among engineers for its ‘insular’ attitude, or ‘locked-in’ strategy toward its product/software ecosystem, and in a capitalist, free-market society, this is the hustle - if you don’t like it - go Android (as many engineers do!).
However, this attitude becomes anti-planet when Apple goes out of its way to produce ‘special’ connectors which;
a. Are expensive,
b. Fail in such a way that the combined charger + cable become electronic waste, (Incidentally, I worked at Sugru, so I have a time-served awareness of this problem, which they have only recently addressed with power chargers and cables being independently replaceable.)
c. Are not supporting the intent of legislation to try to make universal plug and peripherals, such that electronic waste is reduced.
This last point is an interesting one, as ‘intent’ is largely at the crux of Sustainability in Product Design - where is the balance between having optimal control over one's ecosystem, and when should one ‘play ball’ with the major international players for the greater good of environmental and social impact. What I find most concerning about Apple’s ‘intent’ is not its justification to seek excellence in technology, but that it is more concerned with control of its product ecosystem - at the expense of the planet. As mentioned with it using an outmoded USB 2.0 standard, this does not feel ‘in the spirit’ of good sustainable innovation, when they have uncharacteristically made a poor design/electronics choice, for reasons which are hard to see as justifiable or legitimate at first pass.
So without further ado, here's Ken...
Above: Ken Pillonel and I discussing his iPhone USB-C hack on an iPhone, why you might want to consider this appraoch for your work/side-hustles, and how this inspired me to write many sections in this blog series.
Perhaps I’m missing something...?
Apple has many fans and critics out there, but regardless of your tech loyalties, Ken is no basement dwelling troll, or armchair activist - he’s used his skills in electronics, but also his curiosity and doggedness to go beyond the usual remit of task-oriented-engineering, and create a discussion piece. Reflecting on Ken’s work, I find it interesting to consider that the Electronics Industry has too few equivalents of the Ig Nobel Awards (an innovation that “first makes people laugh, then makes them think”). Perhaps ARS Electronica comes close (although perhaps more avant-garde?). It might be that we are overdue for an international platform for projects that tackle the thorny issues of sustainability in electronics in intelligent and proactive ways, as Ken has done with this - and his subsequent projects.
Another pleasing observation about Ken’s YouTube channel is that it has only 8 (yes, eight) videos, and yet has garnered over 100k subscribers, and evidently has high engagement. For most engineers the prospect of doing a weekly upload seems daunting to say the least, but blessedly Ken is an inspiring example of how you can do well on YouTube without a. Being on the ‘treadmill’, and b. Having to adopt a hyperactive persona to be ‘engaging’. His work is detailed, and the jokes are reassuringly deadpan - and he is proof positive that not all heroes wear capes, but they can, it seems, wear a 20x magnification loupe, and call BS on companies to try harder on things that affect us all.
Pre-Departure Notice - How an Attempt to Repair my Headphones Turned into a 3-Month Journey with a Grand Finale at the Recycling Centre.
Intro - The Fight to Repair with Jude Pullen, for RS DesignSpark.
Part 1 - LiPo Battery Basics, Headless Laptops & Safety First.
Part 2 - Returning to Hong Kong, My Design Conspiracy Theories and Meeting Dr Lawrence.
Part 3 - Falling in Love With The Problem of R2R, Looria, and Pre-Purchase Reparability Considerations.
Part 4 - Ken Pillonel’s Ingenious iPhone Hack, and Repairability as a Disruptor.
Part 5 - Battery Post-Mortems with Andy Sinclair, Vapes, Dogmatism and Hacking My Headphones.
Part 6 - Legislation Loopholes, Eco Black Mirror, Chunky Fashion, and R2R Business Models and The Case for Standardisation.
Part 7 - Design, Engineering & Electronics Recommendations for R2R.
Contact: If you have any other questions, or would like to collaborate, please get in touch (link).