Chances are you’re reading this on a cell phone, tablet, or computer that you plunked down a good chunk of change to buy. But if you’ve had that pricey hardware for a while, you know how they can start to get a little slow. And instead of focusing on fixing their old products, the tech giants are busy churning out new ones with the same short life cycle in mind.
Now a global movement of grassroots tinkerers want to rethink the tech economy starting with the devices we already own. In short, they want to repair old devices, rather than always buying new ones.
As momentum grows around the world for the “circular economy,” repair enthusiasts and consumer advocates hope to reverse engineer the throwaway economy with a new restoration culture. The central ethos is to empower consumers as producers, giving them tools and technical skills to fix what’s broken. Even more than recycling e-junk—which, at best, simply diverts trash from landfills—this form of “upcycling” wholly avoids waste, encourages supply-chain transparency, and has the political value of liberating products from copyright and patent rules as users reclaim control of their machines.
The virtuous circle of recovery via repair, however, runs counter to Big Tech’s profit streams, which are fueled by monopolies of planned obsolescence. Since the smartphones and other gadgets dominating the market are basically designed for disposability, and product lines turn over every few months, why bother refurbishing? Not to mention the other barriers to a more sustainable gadget culture, like limitations on warranties. Many products also contain embedded software that, because of overly restrictive licensing agreements, could block consumers from using their hardware the way they want, to repair it when it’s fixed, or to allow others to operate it—and this affects not just pre-programmed electronics like mobile phones but also everyday household appliances now manufactured with digital features, like thermostats, smoke alarms, even toys.
The Repair Association—a network of repair activists ranging from small-scale service providers to hobbyists—is campaigning to unscrew technology through “right-to-repair” policies. Proposed Fair Repair bills in several states would mandate that manufacturers provide purchasers with the same “diagnostic and repair information” that they give to their own proprietary servicers. The principle could apply to other forms of technology like cars and farming equipment, medical devices, or newfangled “Internet of Things” appliances. Repair advocates also seek an overhaul of federal patent and copyright restrictions in order to prevent the digital economy from being colonized by intellectual-property restrictions, such as “end-use license agreements” that bar unlocking of smartphones.