Ingrid Sabogal, right, works with students at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School's Middle School Restart Center.

Photo courtesy Ethical Culture Fieldston School

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The Case to Repair, and Not to Replace

The Right to Repair movement rejects the primacy of disposable culture and proprietary technology. How proposed legislation could notch a victory for digital literacy and environmental sustainability.

Story by Valerie Vande PanneTwitter

Published on Jun 17, 2019

At the end of 2018, I plugged my iPhone into my MacBook Air using a generic cord purchased at a grocery store. I initiated a backup. Everything froze. My iPhone wouldn’t turn on, getting stuck at the initial screen with just the Apple logo. Hours on Apple support chat and a day later (skipping over the traumatic details), I walked out of the nearest Apple store with my iPhone “restored” to factory settings.

I lost all of my data. Nothing had backed up.

The Apple tech scolded me for using a non-Apple authorized cord. He mocked me for not using the Cloud. My question was, “Why didn’t Apple have a warning not to use such cords for backups?” He laughed and said I should have known.

I felt Apple was punishing me for spending $10 on a cord from my local grocery rather than $20 on their proprietary cord.

Since buying charging cables is very nearly an annual expense, why shouldn’t I spend $10 instead of $20? Why wouldn’t Apple warn me not to back up with it?

Then I spoke with Danny Varghese, owner of Repair Tech Kings in Yonkers, New York. He said I didn’t need to lose any data, and that he most likely could have recovered everything and fixed the problem for a reasonable price.

So why did Apple make me lose my data when it was unnecessary? Varghese explained that I wasn’t alone. He sees customers like me regularly.

“I had a customer two days ago,” he says. “She brought her iPhone X to the Apple store. It was power cycling by itself. They told her to wipe the phone.” She brought it to Varghese. “Without diagnostic repair software,” he says, “I discovered it was the battery, and I replaced the battery, [and that solved the problem]. The phone worked fine — better than before.” The woman didn’t lose her data, but she would have had her phone been wiped.

“Customers don’t have to lose their data because Apple says so,” Varhese says.

It’s not just Apple who denies the consumer the right to repair products that a consumer purchases. It’s John Deere. And refrigerator makers. And more or less everything being produced today that contains electronics, or that connects to the internet. You might need a five-cent part to fix your flat-screen TV, but without the manufacturer-controlled schematics, you have no idea which five cent part you need, or where to install it. So you just buy a new TV.

In denying the consumer the schematics, tools, and information needed to repair the products that the consumer owns, manufacturers push us into an ever-more disposable society, at a growing cost to our pocketbooks, our tax dollars and our planet.

Public awareness of this issue has expanded, as more things are designed for obsolescence and people are constantly pressured into buying new things — things they may not want, or need. The most famous of these massively restrictive cases is perhaps John Deere, which basically prohibits farmers—perhaps some of the most resourceful DIYers in the nation—from fixing their own tractors.

Farmers are not the only consumers affected. As more household appliances enable smart-home technology, manufacturers create more significant obstacles to functional repair. They glue batteries in so that they can’t be replaced, and they refuse to release schematics to repair people and general public alike.

If a scrappy group of activists, tinkerers, and engaged citizens have their way, however, New York will be the first state in the U.S. to address this burgeoning problem.

Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association. (Photo courtesy Gay Gordon-Burne). 

The movement is called the Right to Repair. The Repair Association leads the effort to get Right to Repair legislation passed in more than two dozen states nationwide. 2019 marks the fifth year that such a bill has been introduced in New York’s state legislature. With matching bills in both the Assembly and the state Senate, supporters are optimistic that Right to Repair might pass both houses by the end of session, on June 21.

If that happens, New York as a large and influential state will set a precedent manufacturers will be unable to ignore. “It’s highly unlikely that a company like Apple or John Deere would say ‘I’m not gonna do business in New York,’” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association. “Once New York passes it… manufacturers will have to settle on a version of right to repair.”

And other states likely will follow suit. “The first bill that goes is the first to set the standard,” she says. Because of that, opposition from industry lobbyists is expected to be “insane,” according to Gordon-Byrne.

If It’s Broke, Don’t Fix It?

The arguments that corporations cite to keep the public from tinkering with their products tend to center around proprietary software, security concerns, and the dangers of the lithium battery.

Software might be copyrighted and licensed, but that doesn’t mean it’s secret. Gordon-Byrne makes the point that books are copyrighted too, but the text is intended to share information, just as software programs are intended to pass along electrical signals that represent data. “It is fully and specifically legal to repair hardware and make legal backup copies… [and] to tinker with software, including modifications and customization,” she adds.

Security concerns are another scare tactic lobbyists like to employ, says Gordon-Byrne. The only catch is that cybersecurity vulnerability is not linked to device repair “except in the movies,” she says. “Equipment is either designed to be secure or not.”

An example of insecure equipment might be a device that uses a chip already loaded with spyware, as has been suspected with component manufacturers such as Huawei. But Gordon-Byrne argues that “it’s alarmist and ridiculous to tell consumers that getting their equipment fixed is going to expose them to some new risk — when the big risks [such as the always-on recording of conversations by personal assistants or other IoT devices] are being ignored.”

Security professionals have banded together to support Right to Repair.

Beyond software and security, most people just want the products on which they spent hundreds (if not thousands) to actually work. After all, if the battery kicks it in your earbuds, must you really buy new earbuds? Isn’t it easier just to replace the battery? Especially if you don’t have the money to continually invest in new technology. But alas; the battery in your earbuds is probably glued in. When that dies, so do your earbuds.

But we don’t throw away cars with faulty batteries. We expect to fix something when it’s broken. At least we did for a few hundred years.

Another scare tactic is to highlight what’s known as the “thermal runaway:” when a lithium-ion battery breaks — the battery most likely in your cell phone, laptop, even the Tesla — a fire starts. It’s scary to see, scary to imagine children being exposed to it. But it rarely happens in the repair realm — especially when proper diagnostic tools and schematics are available, and referenced.

Thankfully, New York legislators have heard the same lobbyist song for the last 4 years. Veteran legislators, says Gordon-Byrne, are “pretty well inoculated,” to the scare tactics. But there’s always the freshmen, “who haven’t been vaccinated.” Yet.

“When you first sit down with a legislator, they say this is so obvious,” says Gordon-Byrne, of her time discussing the issue in Albany. “Then they hear from a lobbyist and all of a sudden they’re told the American way of life will be destroyed. Catastrophic events will happen. It takes some time to pull them back from the edge.”

A Long Tradition of Repair

The New York bills are modeled on a right to repair bill for automobiles and commercial trucks that passed in Massachusetts in 2012. That law says auto manufacturers must supply fair and reasonable pricing, diagnostics, tools, firmware, and service manuals that are the same as the dealership. The bill guarantees that if you live in Massachusetts, you can get your car fixed at a mechanic that has the same access to the information that a dealer has. The Auto Alliance and the Automotive Service Association — trade groups for the big auto manufacturers and independent auto shops, respectively — reached an agreement that says the automakers will do what they are required to do in Massachusetts around the rest of the country.

At a recent Fixit clinic at the Boulder Public Library, Joe brought in a broken metal detector. Sylvain, the fixer, identified a short in the 5-pin DIN connector that connects the coil to the controls. They bypassed the connectors with solder and heat-shrink tubing, and the detector is fixed. (Photo courtesy of Fixit)

Gordon-Byrne explains that New York’s proposed legislation operates similarly. “If it has electronics on it, it’s got variations of the same stuff. You figure out what’s wrong. After diagnosis, you get the new part, you need the tool, you re-run the diagnostics, and hey! It’s fixed.”

Kyle Wiens is the CEO of iFixIt (a repair website) and a Right to Repair supporter. New York’s bills “will restore our right to fix our own stuff. Farm equipment, electronics — everything but medical equipment.” The medical equipment concession was made to arrive at a passable bill, but the issue in hospitals is one to examine further. Hospitals might want the right to fix the equipment they own, however medical device manufacturers are demanding they use their pricey service contracts.

Everything else, though, is covered under New York’s bills, says Wiens. Consider the new $6,000 basic Mac Pro that Apple recently announced. “Can you repair your cheese grater yourself?” asks Wiens, tongue firmly in cheek. “This is an open question.”

Of course, the issue is more serious than the jokes inspired by Apple’s recent announcement, which sounded like something presented at [the HBO series Silicon Valley’s] Hooli-Con, than a real product real humans really want.

“We used to have vacuum and TV repair shops, and now it’s garbage trucks taking our stuff away,” says Wiens. The very right to keep the products you own for a long time is being taken away, simply because the disposable society is promoted by manufacturers seeking bigger profits for shareholders.

Whatever Happened to Tinkering?

When Henry Ford created the vehicles that would drive America ahead in the world, he tinkered around — and he wanted other Americans to have that freedom as well. In fact, Ford so valued the DIY spirit that Ford Motor Company produced multiple aftermarket “conversion kits” for the Model T, so those who owned one could convert it into whatever then needed, including a tractor, a snowmobile, and pickup truck. Ford’s business model in those days encouraged consumer tinkering and self-sufficiency.

Benjamin Franklin was a tinkerer. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla too. Tinkering is at the root of the innovation — the freedom to learn how things work, and to experiment with making new and better things. Yet this ever-increasing corporate control seems to crush the innovative spirit. Or, at the very least, it crushes the beacons of tech hope we once looked to, such as that former New York City institution, Tekserve.

For New Yorkers not that long ago, Tekserve was a bright star in the repair firmament, the place countless people (real and fictional) ran to, machine in tow and sometimes in tears, over the course of nearly three decades. It was the ICU for every New Yorker’s computer. Today, it’s gone, killed by the double-barreled shotgun of forced manipulation of consumer practices and rising rents: It’s “like this giant wave finally crashed down upon us,” Tekserve’s chief executive Jerry Gepner told the New York Times, in what read like an obituary. Seventy employees lost their jobs.

Throwaway Culture and the Explosion of E-waste

Beyond innovation and the right to simply keep the products you own working for you, (and employing all those local service people you can count on, at a moment’s notice), Wiens sees right to repair as an absolute necessity in an urban context.

“Removing an old refrigerator from a[n upper-floor] apartment isn’t an easy thing,” he says. Refrigerators used to have a lifespan of 20 years, or more, and there were repairmen in your community who could fix them quickly and easily. “Nowadays, if you buy a fridge, the expected life span is seven years. That’s shorter than it’s ever been. And cities are left holding the bag.”

That’s because the city deals with the waste stream. Heavy, bulky refrigerators can’t go on a regular garbage truck. “It has to be handled in a special way because it has a refrigerant in it,” Wiens says. “You have specialized facilities that deal with the end-of-life of refrigerators.”

Fixit Clinics accept broken objects for repair from bikes to toaster ovens to TVs to lamps to carousel toys. (Photo courtesy of Fixit)

The same is true with newer TVs. “There is no good reason to upgrade any [TV] you’ve bought in the last 5 to 10 years,” says Wiens. Something cheap and simple might need to be replaced to fix it, but instead the entire TV gets thrown out, and that’s another thing the city has to deal with.

Manufacturers who produce short-lifespan refrigerators and TVs that can’t be easily repaired create burdens for cities who then must grapple with a growing number of these products entering the waste stream. Even in large cities, if someone could service the product, people in rural and poorer communities do not have that same access. Without easy access to schematics and parts, their Right to Repair — their self-sufficiency — is forcibly diminished.

It’s not just refrigerators and TVs that cause problems for urban waste disposal. By making products and training the consumer to view them as disposable, such as cell phones, actual danger can occur. Lithium ion batteries are now a part of the waste stream, and when those devices are crushed in garbage trucks, that can create the thermal runaway fire. Then, the garbage truck—or waste management facility—catches on fire.

What’s happening now, according to Peter Mui, founder of the Fixit Clinic, is that underwriters are refusing to write recycling centers because of the risk that someone has thrown away an electronic device with a battery in it. “We’ve engineered these devices into a black hole,” says Mui.

According to the iFixIt website, for every 1,000 tons of electronics, landfilling creates zero jobs, recycling creates 15, and repairing creates 200 jobs.

Repair service jobs are great jobs, says Wiens. The tailor, the cobbler, the TV and cell phone repair shops, “those are the shops we want in our communities,” says Wiens. “We used to have camera stores in every town in America. Now there are none. It’s a direct result of Nikon and Canon deciding not to sell service parts to independent stores. They just decided ‘no more parts for you,’ and that was the end of retail camera shops in America,” circa 2012. As a result of these manufacturer policies, says Wiens, we’ve lost part of the economic resiliency of our towns.

Inside The Fixit Clinic

But, that doesn’t stop “fix it” cafes and clinics from popping up around the country. At Mui’s Fixit Clinic, people of all ages and all experience levels come together at community repair workshops held mostly at public libraries. Mui describes it as a “guided disassembly,” and says it’s “kinda like an AA meeting for broken stuff.”

People come in, and someone will say, “‘Hi, I’m Ted and this is my DVD player. It does this when I put a disc in.’ We say, ‘OK, let’s open it up and see what might be wrong,’” says Mui, adding that they’re helping people fix their own devices. “We’re not fixing it for you. We’re guiding you through it. We’re spreading the ethos that repair is possible.”

Mui has been teaching repair since 2009, where he started Fixit Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley’s Albany Village Community Center. “Before, it was a humble opportunity to make tools available, just to see what we could see,” he says. “But over time I’ve moved more into policy and advocacy. There are certain choices we make as a civilization that sends things to the landfill prematurely. The more I do this, the more militant I get that we’re operating the planet at a consumption level. Our consumption is killing the planet. It’s not sustainable going forward. It’s in our interest as a civilization to keep things at their highest utility level for as long as possible.”

Mui believes people get tired of their products, or they think, ‘it’s old so I should get another one.’ Another issue, though, is that the product has a very simple thing that could be fixed and people don’t think it could be repairable — the hyper-capitalist, disposable society mentality seeping into our ways of life.

Helping people fix their own products, Mui says, empowers them to make the product “better than new. Not only is it fixed, but you now understand how it broke and can troubleshoot it and fix it again and again.”

“We fix at a 70 percent [success rate] without access to repair or service manuals from manufacturers. Most of the time we’re just applying critical thinking skills,” Mui says.

Mui says he was inspired when he saw consumer electronics that were easily repairable, but manufacturers were “using some weird triangle head or slotted spanner-head screwdriver, and your average person doesn’t have that tool.”

As hardware and software become ever more deeply integrated into today’s electronics, the issue of right to repair “speaks to the nature of ownership in general,” says Mui. “They stopped providing updates to iPhones 4 and 5. That personal info is vulnerable, and could be taken over. But you own it. You spent $500 to $600 on it. It does everything you need it do. But Apple decides you can no longer use it. And if a third party provides the update — [because] they can’t — only Apple can give the code to unencrypt the phone. Verizon decided on its own to not allow activation of 3G phones. So if you want to pass one on to [someone else], you have a $400-$500 brick now. You can’t use it any more on Verizon, since the frequency is locked to Verizon’s network.”

Mui points out that the fast-fashion industry is also a critical part of the repair movement. “It’s clothing and luggage and tents and canopies,” that can be fixed easily, he says, yet that industry is the second biggest polluting industry on Earth, next to Big Oil.

“Repair has gone away. There is no third-party repair in Berkley or the Bay area. Third-party repair is priced out,” says Mui.

One of the things he hopes for with the Fix-It Clinic is to inspire “how to design for durability, maintainability, and serviceability and repair-ability … from the get-go.”

Training Students to Repair, Not Dispose

At The Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in the Bronx, middle- and upper-school students learn how to repair their own devices at the Restart Center.

“What we have is a center and volunteers, like a math tutoring center,” says Jeannie Crowley, the school’s director of technology. “We say, ‘Ok, you broke your phone. We’re gonna guide you through fixing your own phone.’ We talk about the minerals and the tools and the ability to repair.”

Students, says Crowley, spend a lot of time with their phones. But when they open it up they get a new mental model for how phones work, and their relationship to them changes.

Not only does the school help students (and parents) extend the lifetimes of their phones, she says, “We want people to leave the school and go into design and make one tweak to extend the life” of the products they design. This is how they hope to bring kids into the repair movement.

“People often think kids shouldn’t be involved in repair,” says Crowley. “We feel repair is critical for kids to understand… One of our goals… is to work out the kinks so schools that aren’t as well resourced as us can take what we’ve learned and apply it.” Their website has been modeled by schools from Washington state to Australia.

 
A middle school student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School prepares to replace a damaged iPad battery. (Photo by Jeannie Crowley)

Even the school’s fifth graders have the opportunity to open their computers, clean them out, upgrade the RAM, and get them ready for the next year’s students.

Crowley says right to repair is about many fundamental things, including the idea of ownership, and saving money. For her and the students, it’s also about climate change prevention and sustainability, curbing e-waste, and preventing products from going to a landfill because the software has an expiration date or the battery is glued in. “We’ve become a disposable society, and it’s not sustainable,” she says.

Repair and sustainability both require “manufacturers to give us the tools, instruction, and access to parts to complete the repair.”

Crowley laughs at the idea that “‘it’s dangerous to fix your own phone or [kids] might do it wrong.’ Fixing your own car is a time-honored tradition — it could be dangerous. People have been doing electronics repair for a long time. By receiving the instructions we can mitigate safety, but manufacturers don’t want that because it means we’ll hang on to things longer.”

Crowley says manufacturers want a “very short and very profitable life cycle.” Repair — and sustainability — do not align with those goals.

The Little Fixes Make a Big Difference

Varghese is a passionate advocate for Right to Repair as well. “Let’s say the camera glass on the back of your iPhone breaks. Apple says you need a new phone. It’s a lie. You can replace that glass.”

Danny Varghese, owner of Repair Tech Kings in Yonkers, New York, has been repairing phones and computers since high school. “Customers don’t have to lose their data because Apple says so,” (Photo by Danny Varghese)

It’s clear Varghese knows how manufacturers operate. He explains why he will not become an Apple authorized service provider: “They require you never do any other repair to other products — and to do it to their strengths, like with the camera phone glass. If you enjoy using that product, you shouldn’t be forced to upgrade because Apple or Microsoft need to make more money.”

Varghese has been fixing phones and computers since high school. “If you tell [Apple] you had a little water drop on the computer, that means… it’s a $1,200 repair, but for $1,300 you can buy a new one,” he says, frustration evident. He says he can do most liquid damage repair for $350 — but even then, still runs into trouble sometimes. For example, a recent client’s machine had liquid damage, and he was able to fix everything except the machine’s webcam. If Right to Repair were in place, the schematics of the machine would be available, and Varghese could see how to repair the camera.

More consumers need to know about Right to Repair, says Varghese. Apple may have told you the problem can’t be fixed, but with Right to Repair, those products may become fixable.

“An open market is good for businesses and consumers,” says Varghese. “It’s good for everyone.”

“There is very little New York would lose, from a development standpoint,” says Gordon-Byrne.

“It’s economic justice, digital literacy, and digital equity,” says Mui. “It’s general technology literacy.”

And when Right to Repair is implemented, says Wiens, “We can bring back a culture of tinkering and engineering that used to be part of the American experience.”

They better do that soon. I love my iPhone SE. It’s the perfect size, and one of the smallest iPhones ever. I’m a petite woman, and I don’t want a phone bigger than a 1980s CD Walkman. If I can keep this phone working until Apple realizes not all of their clients are 6-foot tall men with large hands, I’ll be happy.

Valerie Vande Panne is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow and a freelance writer. She travels extensively throughout the United States. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, and Politico, among many other outlets. She is a former news editor of High Times magazine, and the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times. 

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