If my phone were a person, it would be the bionic woman. Its body has been broken and rebuilt more times than I can count. Its brain has been modified, tinkered with, and improved.
In the past three years, my iPhone 4S has been jailbroken and wired into a home automation system. Its Apple-approved glass back panel has been replaced with a transparent one. It’s been water-drenched, dismantled, and completely cleaned. Twice. Thanks to an app from the free-asin-speech Cydia store, I’m tracking my battery’s performance in ways Apple won’t allow. And I’ve pried up and replaced that battery over and over again.
It’s the phone that will not die — at least not if I have anything to say about it.
Ten years ago, I started iFixit, the world’s free online repair manual. Our goal is to teach everyone how to fix the stuff they own — whether it’s laptops, snowboards, toys, or clothes. And we’re not alone. iFixit is part of a global network of fixers trying to make the stuff we own last forever.
On the surface, fixers and makers are cut from different cloth. Makers put things together; fixers take them apart. One creates new gizmos; the other rebuilds existing ones. But I’ve always thought that, under the skin, they’re incredibly similar — two different sides of the same coin.
We are, all of us, tinkerers. We’re motivated by the same ideals: an inexhaustible curiosity, an appreciation for things done by hand, a sentimental attachment to the smell of wood shavings, and a never-ending pursuit of understanding the things around us.
As tinkerers, we become more than just consumers. We are participants in the things we make, own, and fix. But over the years, I have found that this participation — tinkering with products made by others — puts both makers and fixers at odds with manufacturers. (Apple certainly wouldn’t endorse my bionic iPhone.) For the most part, manufacturers would prefer if we all just put down our screw-drivers and got back in line at the store.
By revealing (and reveling in) the secret insides of machines, tinkerers transgress the boundaries of what manufacturers think we should be able to do with our stuff. We alter the code they wrote, we rebuild the hardware they designed, and we find ways of fixing our old stuff instead of buying their new stuff.
For the past 20 years, manufacturers have been waging a quiet war against tinkerers like us. They’re using encryptionpowered DRM, vague hand-waving claims of proprietary knowledge, DMCA takedown notices, and legal threats to keep people from fixing their tractors, from repairing their Apple products, and even from modifying the software on their calculators. Keurig is even adding a chip to their coffee pods to prevent homebrewers from “reloading” their capsules.
It’s been more than a year since 114,000 people signed a We the People petition to legalize cellphone unlocking, but switching carriers is still a crime — despite intensive lobbying from digital rights groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Even the car industry — sacred ground for tinkerers since the rise of the hot rod — has succumbed to the same locked-door policies. These days, cars are made up of as much code as they are nuts and bolts. Tinkering under the hood requires access to service information and schematic systems — information that carmakers don’t like to share.
In Massachusetts, voters had to pass a law to force automakers to share internal service manuals, circuit diagrams, and computer codes with independent repair shops and owners.
I think that if you bought it, you own it. I mean really own it. You have the right to take it apart, mod it, repair it, tap dance in the code, or hook it up to your personal brand of Arduino kung-fu.
But if you want the right to tinker, you’ll have to start fighting for it. Fight for your right to mod and make. Fight for your right to repair. Fight for your right to own your own things.
We live in a brave new digital world, and it’s time that we join forces with Cory Doctorow — and other makers leading the movement to free our hardware — when he says, “This has nothing to do with whether information is free or not — it’s all about whether people are free.”