The Professional Repairer Trap: We are all Geniuses. Don’t let the corporations tell you otherwise

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The Professional Repairer Trap: We are all Geniuses. Don’t let the corporations tell you otherwise

For years, my organization, U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), has been campaigning with iFixit,
Repair.org, and a plucky team of repair shops, makers, and hackers to pass laws that guarantee access to what people need to fix modern gizmos, specifically the parts, tools, and service information. We’ve had “right to repair” bills in 40 of 50 states over the last 6 years, and put considerable pressure on manufacturers to stop blocking access to repair.

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As they’ve ceded more and more ground to the marching right-to-repair campaigns, manufacturers have attempted to create a new fallback position. Instead of letting just anyone fix products, manufacturers would set some kind of standard for who gets to read the manual, or have access to spare parts or special tools. This was a concession the European Union put in place for appliance repair rules which have been rolling out across the continent after passing through the EU Parliament. Only “professional repairers” can access necessary parts and service information.

The idea that I would need some kind of business license to fix a door gasket on a washing machine, or replace the control board on a dishwasher, is bizarre. But industry rigorously pushed to restrict access to only an undefined class of “professionals,” and is trying to make a similar push around rules here in the United States. Take Microsoft for example: When debuting a new, more repairable Surface laptop in 2019, Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay showed the ease of removing the keyboard on stage, by simply snapping it open — a huge design improvement over an earlier model. But Panay then declared that repair is intended for “commercial customers.” “I have a disclaimer: Don’t try that,” Panay said during the demonstration. Reporters later confirmed that the tools needed would be restricted to “authorized repair technicians.”

Not only does such a limitation give manufacturers an opportunity to maintain control over repair access (which allows the same monopolistic restrictions to continue in a new form), it also concedes to a worldview which I intend to undermine if not destroy. To me, it’s the essential idea behind why we become makers.

We are all geniuses

After I posted the news about Apple’s repair-friendly Self Service Program, one Twitter user responded: #Righttorepair is certainly a good idea, but a manual, online video or some tools don’t qualify someone to fix an iPhone or even a toaster. There is a reason people get trained. Once the first person attempts to repair a device and gets a [sic] electrical shock this will be over.

U.S. PIRG is a collection of state-based advocacy groups, and as such, I’ve been working to pass right to repair in dozens of states. I hear arguments like the above all the time, mostly from opposition lobbyists or the lawmakers who’ve been influenced by those lobbyists. The core of the argument is that people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. We need a special class of people — the “Geniuses,” as Apple calls their sales representatives — to make choices for us, otherwise we will just ruin everything. To me, this is not only false, but violates the core premise of democracy. People are resourceful. They aren’t reckless and stupid. They can make their own decisions. They manage all manner of risk in their lives without disaster. There is no reason to believe we can’t figure out when to fix something or when to hire someone else. We fix cars after all!

Not only are we capable, but society benefits when more people are adding their creativity to the mix. We fix problems that manufacturers neglect because they have different incentives. They aim to maximize value to shareholders, and don’t prioritize the kind of innovations that make life better for people. To me, this is why the right to repair is so important. It’s not just a rebellion against planned obsolescence, but it’s a rebuttal against the worldview that sets us up as passive consumers, consumers who aren’t smart or capable enough to contribute.

There is no reason to believe we can’t figure out when to fix something or when to hire someone else.

Two years ago, Apple made the smallest opening in their repair model to include additional repair shops as “certified,” undoubtedly with the hope that this might satisfy right-to-repair advocates. It did not. Now, while other manufacturers are still trying to convince us to limit reforms to “professionals,” Apple has included DIY repairs. It’s a huge milestone.

As more and more manufacturers show that repair access is reasonable and doable, it should become clear to lawmakers that there are no more excuses. We’ll continue our work in Congress and state legislatures across the country to convince decision-makers: It’s time to give every American the right to repair, so everyone can fix all their products or take them to the repair shop of their choice. That’s the way it should be. 

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Nathan Proctor

Senior Director of Right to Repair campaigns with U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a consumer and public health advocacy group. He is a 16-year veteran of advocacy campaigns, and lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

View more articles by Nathan Proctor

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