by Bob Cole, DLINQ Director of Exploratory Initiatives and Partnerships

“Can breakdown, maintenance, and repair confer special epistemic advantages in our thinking about technology? Can the fixer know and see different things –indeed different worlds –than the better-known figures of ‘designer’ or ‘user’?” Steven J. Jackson, Rethinking Repair, (pp. 229)

In his provocative essay “Rethinking Repair,” information science and technology scholar Steven Jackson wonders how our perceptions, use, and relationship with technologies might be transformed by what he calls “broken world thinking.” According to Jackson, broken world thinking asks that we acknowledge the fragility and limits of the natural, social, and technological worlds we inhabit so that we may appreciate the essential role of repair, maintenance, restoration, and care in those worlds. Repair, he suggests, “fills in the moment of hope and fear in which bridges from old worlds to new worlds are built, and the continuity of order, value, and meaning gets woven, one tenuous thread at a time. And it does all this quietly, humbly, and all the time” (pp. 223).

According to a 2020 United Nations Institute for Training & Research study, some 53.6 million tons of e-waste was discarded in 2019, and only 17.4 percent of it was disposed of properly. The report also estimates that “gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US $57 billion” were sent to landfills or incinerated rather than recovered for reuse. The statistics are hard to put into perspective, but take a moment to look around your home or office. How much of the stuff that you own has a computer chip in it? At some point these items will break or become obsolete, but where will they end up?

It was around a year ago when I myself began to reflect on the possibilities of repair versus discard and replace in relation to some of the electronic gadgets I use. My teenage son had cracked the home button on his new smartphone (he assured us he didn’t know how it happened). The enduring promise of the phone’s sleek design, its magical connectivity and access to a sea of apps and content was diminished. The device had been rendered inoperable, or as some say, “bricked.” The prospect of paying hundreds of dollars to send the phone off to a certified service center was frustrating, and discarding the broken phone for a new replacement seemed irresponsible.

This dilemma of paying someone to repair versus replacing a device is probably familiar to anyone who has reached a potential “end-of-life” crossroads for one of their many electronic devices. There are upsides and costs to each. Yet I wondered, are these my only choices? Are there alternative paths for a self-described tinkerer and occasional fixer? Could I source the parts, tools, and repair knowledge on my own? What might I learn along the way?

As I embarked on my repair journey I discovered there is a global community of fixers advancing the virtues of repairability as a remedy to planned obsolescence and the linear “take-make-use-waste” economic model driving environmental degradation. Repair advocates envision themselves as part of a transition to a more circular economy based on the idea that sustainable ecological systems are more circular in nature. In a circular model waste as an endpoint is reimagined through recycling, returning, reusing, refusing and repairing. Expanding access to repair is a primary goal of the “right to repair” movement.

In the excellent Repair Revolution: How Fixers are Transforming our Throwaway Culture, John Wackman and Elizabeth Knight make the case for cultures, communities, and economies of repair through the growing Repair Cafe movement. A repair culture values “extending the life of stuff that you care about or rely on… feeding your curiosity about the way things work, using tools and using your hands…honoring, preserving, and passing on repair know-how…sharing skills…reducing waste” (pp. 2-3).

There are also robust online communities helping to build cultures of repair. Co-founded in 2003 by Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules, iFixit is a recognized leader advocating for the repairability of all kinds of devices. Fixers from around the world rate the repairability of devices, share repair experiences, and recommend replacement parts and tools to support repair projects. iFixit’s manifesto reminds us that repairability provides a more sustainable response to the global challenge of electronic waste, with the added benefits of conserving natural resources, saving money, and building community.

In collaboration with grassroots efforts and social purpose businesses like iFixit, repair advocacy groups like the Repair Association aim to influence how products are designed and manufactured, to make them easier and more affordable to repair, and also to protect ownership rights after purchase. Electronics manufacturers used to freely provide consumers with repair information, but as repair activist Gay Gordon-Byrne and Kyle Wien note in their 2014 article Why We Must Fight for the Right to Repair our Electronics “…at the very moment when information about how to repair electronics should be easiest for owners to get their hands on, it has dried up. That scarcity is by design.”

Most companies would rather you buy a new device than repair it. It’s not uncommon today for companies to lock down access to service manuals, limit the availability of parts, and control who can provide a repair. For example, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, functioning ventilators provided a crucial treatment for severely ill patients. However, the sudden increase in demand brought into focus the fact that some medical technology manufacturers restricted hospital biomedical repair technicians–known as biomeds–from repairing hospital equipment. According to a July 2020 report by the US Public Interest Research Group, nearly half of the more than 200 biomeds surveyed reported that they had been denied access to critical repair information, parts, or passwords needed to keep essential medical equipment running. The report warned that “in addition to higher costs, fewer options can lead to bottlenecks, especially in a time of crisis,” potentially putting patients at risk.

Farmers have also been fighting for a right to repair. Like our phones, cars, and myriad of smart devices, modern tractors are outfitted with complex computers, sensors and proprietary software. In fact, the purchase of some tractors now come with a complicated service contract or Extended Use License Agreements (EULA). Such agreements mean that farmers own the machinery but the manufacturers control the software, unfairly restricting the terms of ownership and encroaching on farmers’ rights to repair, improve, or generally modify their machinery in any way. As a result, companies like John Deere have come under pressure and faced lawsuits in recent years to address obstacles to repair of their tractors. Right-to-repair advocates are demanding that consumers have the right to open, modify, and repair products they own. The way a product is used should not be solely dictated by the manufacturer.

Repairability is gaining momentum as a priority for governments and some businesses. In the U.S. by the summer of 2021, over 27 states had introduced legislation protecting the right to repair, and a national “Fair Repair Act” was introduced “to create consumer- and worker-protecting rules across the broadband, agricultural, transportation, and technology industries.” Companies like Fairphone and Framework are making repairability a central design principle of their technology products. Meanwhile in France, a “repairability consumer index” tool was introduced that will require manufacturers of electronic devices to provide consumers with scores based on the repairability of their products. The policy is meant to help transition France toward a more circular economy to minimize waste and maximize the durability of material goods. Recent legislation and tools like the repairability index may partly explain why influential corporations such as Apple have begun to update their repairability policies and programs in recent months.

I am pleased to report that the repair of my son’s phone went well. I worked with an iFixit step-by-step guide by lead tear-down engineer Samantha Goldheart to salvage my son’s phone. In the process I learned how to open the phone case and disconnect the screen with a specialized pentalobe screwdriver, suction cups, and a cool little tool called a spudger. Putting the phone back together took some careful attention and effort, but it was back in working order after about two hours. I would not have felt empowered to take on such a project without the online repair community. It felt great to hand the revived phone over to my son. Perhaps in that moment I shifted his perspective to see what I could see as a repairer – the true value of maintenance and care.

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