When old technology broke, you could fix it yourself or get a guy down the road to do it for you. If that failed, you could find a repair shop that would get the job done for much less than going straight to the manufacturer. With newer products, those options are disappearing. It is now often impossible to fix our own stuff.
This change was not accidental. Companies deliberately design products to prevent us from finding replacement parts. They don’t even make information available to repair shops. Manufacturers have actively undermined our right to repair what we buy, and in doing so, they’ve called into question whether we truly own our purchases at all. Increasingly, the answer is no.
This change places a financial burden on us, restricts market freedom, and does lasting damage to the environment. In response, a growing number of people are demanding a change. They are insisting that our right to repair be enshrined in law.
What Is the Right to Repair?
This is the right to fix technology yourself or have someone other than the manufacturer do the work for you. This concept isn’t listed in the Bill of Rights, but that doesn’t make its existence seem like any less of a given. If you buy something, it’s yours. If it’s yours, you should be able to fix it.
This seems obvious, but take a look at the things in your home. Can you fix the device you’re reading this on? What about the game console under your TV? If your smart speaker suffered from a physical defect, do you have any option aside from asking for a refund or sending it back for repairs? Are you aware of a repair shop you could send it to instead?
Why Do We Need Laws?
Over the past century, companies across any number of industries have increasingly designed their products to become obsolete. Some started making proprietary parts that kept owners from extending how long a product lasts. This tactic offered a way to grow profits by increasing the number of times consumers needed to buy the same product over the course of their lives.
Today, many smartphones and tablets are designed to prevent you and I from cracking them open. Apple went so far as to create a special screw to prevent consumers and repair shops from getting inside.
Being the only one who can make repairs provides a company with a monopoly, so they can charge as much as they want for replacements. Most people won’t want to pay that price and opt to buy a new one instead. Either way, the manufacturer makes more money.
This isn’t just a consumer tech problem. Farmers can have to haul a tractor hundreds of miles to get a manufacturer to fix the onboard computer. That’s a painful loss of time and labor. The struggle is such that a black market of John Deere parts has formed, connecting Nebraska farmers with counterparts in Eastern Europe to buy unlocked tractor firmware.
In 2016, tech companies such as Apple successfully blocked a right to repair bill in New York before the measure could come to a vote. In Nebraska, John Deere and Apple both recently opposed the proposed Adopt the Fair Repair Act, with Apple’s representative arguing that such a law would make the state a “Mecca for bad actors.” Similar bills have failed in Wyoming, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Tennessee, and Massachusetts.
Rural states like Nebraska are especially hard hit by the status quo. Authorized retailers tend to be in major urban areas. Nebraska reportedly has one brick-and-mortar Apple store. Only a handful of authorized repair shops exist elsewhere in the state.
Apple is hardly working alone. The various tech industry groups taking the company’s side in opposing Nebraska’s right to repair bill represent Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, and Nintendo as well.
For corporations, this is a matter of increasing profits. For repair shops, this is an issue of being able to stay in business (and being relevant). For people in the health care industry, this can be a matter of life or death.
What Can You Do Right Now?
Avoid the shiny and new. The idea of a smart home may sound nice, but unless you’re MacGyvering a system yourself, there’s a good chance you’re filling your house with non-repairable tech. On laptops and tablets, sleek often means you’re not fixing it yourself. “Smart” watches are meant to last a year or two before losing their wits, so repairs are an after thought. Good luck replacing a dead battery on a Fitbit.
Look for screws. If you can open a device using readily available tools, that’s a sign the manufacturer intends for other people to operate on the hardware. That person may need to be an expert, but at least the option is there.
Consider free and open source software whenever possible. This community considers the ability to fix and edit your own software to be a fundamental right. Developers also strive to support old hardware indefinitely, unlike commercial operating systems that only prioritize the latest generations of hardware. You can run Linux on a computer that a Windows technician would say is in dire need of repair.
Avoid specialized software. As a writer, I could buy a MacBook and get access to an abundance of quirky tools. Alternatively, I can learn how to write in Markdown and become as productive on a Raspberry Pi with a keyboard and monitor as I would be on a $2,400 laptop. Then I have the option not to give my money to companies actively trying to destroy my right to repair.
Regardless of what hardware you’re using, become acquainted with iFixit. This community-supported site shows if your latest splurge is repairable.
None of these tactics would help a farmer in need of a good working tractor. It doesn’t help a doctor using equipment in a region that a manufacturer refuses to service. And some of us simply love tech too much to take a pass on many of the cool products coming out. This is why we need to advocate for our right to repair. Consider supporting the Repair Association, a non-profit that lobbies for right to repair laws.
Pressure your representatives to propose and support right to repair bills in your state. This isn’t only an issue of consumers vs the industry. Businesses benefit from this as well. In 2014, right to repair advocates and trade groups representing automakers agreed to a deal that provides independent garages and retailers with the same diagnostic tools that manufacturers give their own franchised dealers.
Long-term, we need a circular economy that encourages everyone to get as much as possible from the resources we consume. Repairing and reusing our gadgets is a big part of making this happen.
Can We Repair This Right?
We increasingly live in a world where we own neither our data nor the apps that access those files. It’s not even a given that we can use the products we buy in the way that we wish. At the very least, we should be able to fix things that are broken.
But sadly, repairing our gadgets is no longer a given. If we want this situation to change, we have to demand as much from companies using our wallets and the law. The internet is also a great platform for making our voices heard.
What was the last product you wanted to fix but couldn’t? Do you live in any of the states where a right to repair bill couldn’t make it to a vote? Do you agree with the companies that believe we shouldn’t have a right to repair at all? I’ll see you in the comments!
Image Credit: omphoto via Shutterstock.com