What the Right To Repair Movement Gets Wrong

THE ENGINEER’S PLACE The end came with a whimper. My personal laser printer showed a persistent error message. In the past, closing the cover cleared the message and let me print. Not this time. I surveyed guidance on the Web, even studied the remedies proposed by the printer’s maker. No joy.

After weeks, and then months after opening and closing the cover, and turning the printer off and on, I surrendered. Last week, I unplugged it, removed the ink cartridge (for re-use) and carried the printer to a nearby responsible electronics recycler.

I cringed and wondered. Should I feel shame for contravening the nifty dictum of the self-styled “right to repair” movement, which insists that “instead of throwing things out,” we should “reuse, salvage and rebuild?” 

In the case of my zombie printer, I’m convinced the recycler was the best destination. A near-identical model, brand new, sells on Amazon for $99. The ink cartridge costs a third as much. Even if the printer could be repaired, at what expense in parts and labor?

So I bought a new printer.

When I ponder the wisdom of my decision, I think “Shame on me.” Rather than fight to repair my wounded device, I did what Big Tech and other manufacturers increasingly want owners to do. I threw it away.

Today repair remains an option, one that makers want to monopolize or eliminate. Apple, the world’s most valuable company, is the worst offender, effectively forbidding owners to repair or maintain their smart phones. Not even the battery is replaceable by an owner. Forbidden also are repairs by owners of cracked screens. Such brazen actions void Apple’s warranty.

Many people have a tale of trying to bootleg an iPhone repair. My favorite is when I found a guy on Yelp! who asked me to meet him inside a Starbucks. His nom de repair is ScreenDoc, and he ran our rendezvous like a drug buy. He only entered the shop after I ordered a coffee and sat down. Seated at my table, working with tiny tools, he swapped my broken screen for a new one. I slipped him $90 in cash, and he left.

Sound tawdry? The nationwide campaign, led by Repair.Org, agrees, which is why Repair.Org supports legislation in at least 20 states to promote “your right to repair,” by requiring manufacturers “to share the information necessary for repair.”

Long before the advent of the repair campaign, and a related movement called the Maintainers, there were loud critics of “planned obsolescence.” During Depression-era America, an influential book published 1932 advocated “creative waste”—the idea that throwing things away and buying new things can fuel a strong economy. One advocate, Bernard London, wrote a paper in 1932, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence,” in which he called on the federal government to print expiration dates on manufactured goods. “Furniture and clothing and other commodities should have a span of life, just as humans have,” he wrote. “They should be retired, and replaced by fresh merchandise.”

Manufacturers purposely made stuff that broke or wore out, so consumers would have to buy the stuff again. Echoes of this practice persist. In shopping for new tires, for instance, drivers pay more for those “rated” to last longer.

The big threat to devices today isn’t failure, but rather “creative destruction,” or the new advent of new and improved stuff. Who needs to think about repairs when we are dazzled by the latest “upgrade.”

The newest iPhones, for instance, are promoted on the appeal of their improved cameras. The latest Apple watch series boasts new band colors. Such incremental improvements long pre-date Apple’s popularity. One hundred years ago, General Motors decided to release new models, new colors, and faster engines every year. “The changes in the new model should be so novel and attractive as to create demand…and a certain amount of dissatisfaction with past models as compared with the new one,” wrote Alfred Sloan, then automaker’s CEO, in his 1963 autobiography My Years With General Motors.

Some of us never grow disenchanted with certain machines. We love them forever. And we strive to keep them going. Some cherished cars fall into this category, and computers do, too. I’m typing this article on my beloved 2014 Mac Powerbook. My battery is toast, so I can only securely use the laptop while plugged in. And I type on an external keyboard because the original keys are so worn out that a few won’t function at all even though Apple has twice replaced the key caps for me.

I don’t want my PowerBook Pro to die; yet my repair options are ruled by Apple. And a cruel master is she. My best path forward is to ask Apple to replace the keyboard and battery. I dread finding out whether Apple continues to offer this option. Though I feel no shame regarding my utter dependence on Apple for repairs, I do feel outrage and puzzlement. I am aware that the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement that has transformed how we maintain our homes and our bodies, how we eat and drink, work and play.

But DIY maintenance is not for everybody or appropriate for every situation. Nor does it inevitably produce greater “caring.” Results vary. Quality can suffer. While a person’s self-esteem may rise with every home improvement they carry out, the value of their home may decline as a result (because of the quality of the DIY fixes). I favor a simple rule: encourage consumers to repair if they wish but not insist on self-repair under every circumstance, and leave the option that original makers of complex devices will repair them the best (Tesla owners, take heed!)

When self-reliance becomes non-negotiable, the results can be dispiriting. But when the impulse to do things yourself, like brewing your own beer, baking your own bread, raising your own chickens and building your own computers, takes hold, the results can be good for your soul.

In 1974, a repair enthusiast named Robert Pirsig published a book that proved highly influential and sold millions of copies. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance came to define a spiritual and mental outlook by contrasting the approaches of two bike owners. One rides an expensive new bike and relies on professionals to repair. The other rides an older bike that he repairs on his own and, by doing so, hones his problem-solving abilities and, unexpectedly, connects to a deeper wisdom that enhances his sense of dignity and endows his life with greater meaning.

The shift in attitudes a half-century ago was dramatic, reflecting the profound expansion of the human-built world. Once humans sought to “connect” with nature; now they wished to do the same (or more) with their machines. In many ways, the repair movement is a revival of this venerable counter-cultural tradition.

Today’s repair enthusiasts would have us believe that the well-maintained artifact is the new beautiful. But denying consumers the ability to repair their stuff is, to me, chiefly an economic, not a spiritual or aesthetic, issue.

The denial of the repair option is not limited to laptops and smart phones. Automobiles are now essentially computers on wheels. Digital diagnostics make repair no longer the dominion of the clever tinkerer. Specialized software, reading reports from the sensors scattered throughout your car, decides which “modules” to replace. The ease comes at a price. Your dealer now dominates the repair business. Independent car shops often can’t or won’t invest in the car manufacturer’s expensive software. And the hardy souls that once maintained their own vehicles, in their driveway or on the street, are as close to extinction as the white rhino.

The predatory issue is central. The denial of the repair option is often a form of profiteering. The manufacturer earns money from what he or she considers the “after market.” Many makers of popular devices now see repair and maintenance as a kind of annuity, a stream of revenue similar in type to that provided by sales of a printer cartridge or razor blade. For auto dealers, profits from “service” now can exceed profits from sales of new cars. Increasingly products are designed, across many categories, to render impossible, or greatly limit, repair by owner.

I am not sure the practice is wrong, and certainly not wrong in all cases. The profits from repair are often justified by claims of superior service. Brand-name makers, in theory, can control reliability by maintaining their own devices. Reliability easily conflates with “peace of mind,” so that the repair path collides squarely with another basic human urge: convenience.

Not everyone opposes convenience, so the Repair movement might regret choosing to advocate for a “right” to repair rather than an “option.” An option implies protecting a consumer’s choice, not mandating a specific repair scenario. I’m skeptical about applying the language of legal rights to the problem of repair and maintenance; because there are many cases where technology companies especially have the obligation to repair problems, and not foist them onto their customers.

Here’s a live example. Among my chief reasons for my loyalty to the iPhone is that Apple supplies updated software that protects me against viruses and security hacks; Apple even installs this software on my phone sometimes without my conscious assent, or awareness. If I had to assent explicitly to each iPhone software update, I would invariably fail to have the latest protection and then suffer the negative consequences. So I don’t want to be responsible for repairing or maintaining a phone that is inherently collective in nature. I am freer and happier when Apple does it.

I understand that ceding the repair to an impersonal System might seem to libertarians like a road to serfdom. But having the System in charge of repair probably makes sense for essential products and services.

The artifacts in our world are profoundly networked now, and even though some devices look and feel individual to us, they are not. Their discreteness is an illusion. Increasingly no person is a technological island. Our devices are part of systems that depend on collective action and communal support.

Given the deep interconnectedness of our built environment, the distinction between repairing your own devices and letting others do so breaks down; and insisting on maintaining the distinction strikes me as inherently anti-social and destructive to the common good. At the very least the question of who repairs what should be viewed as morally neutral. Our answers should be shaped by economics and practicality, not romantic notions about individual freedom and responsibility.

Because the right-to-repair movement is based on a romantic notion, and pits those who maintain against those who don’t, a backlash against the concept is inevitable. A healthier approach to the genuine challenge of maintaining technological systems, and their dependent devices, would be to also strengthen collective responses and systems of repair and maintenance.

Much is at stake in this argument. Thinking about who is responsible for what aspects of our techno-human condition helps clarify what forms of resistance are possible in a world dominated by Big Tech companies and complex socio-technical systems. Resistance can and should take many forms, but resistance will be far more effective, I submit, if we do not choose repair and maintenance as a proxy for democratic control over innovation.

So I offer different solution. Rather than burden individuals with enhanced rights and duties for repair and maintenance of our devices, let’s demand that makers of digitally-controlled stuff make repairs at fair prices, quickly and reliably. Or maybe we go further and demand that these companies repair and maintain their products at a slight loss, or even a large loss, in order to incentivize them to design and build high-quality stuff in the first place; stuff that requires less maintenance and fewer repairs.

By insuring that repair is fair, reliable and low cost by law and custom, we can achieve the best of both worlds: keep our gadgets running and feel good knowing that the quality of our stuff is not the measure of ourselves.

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