People have always repaired things. What’s new is that there is such an abundance of information and expertise available online to help anyone do repair. The bulk of it is “unofficial,” which is to say that people are sharing their repair stories with others, and that sharing is global.
Wayne Seltzer of U-Fix-It Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, describes a scenario from a recent virtual repair event: “A woman from Jakarta was helping a Belgian man fix his waffle iron, which was causing a short circuit when he operated it.” The Belgian didn’t think Americans making jokes about Belgian waffles were funny, however. The woman identified that the problem was a “ground fault.” The waffle iron’s heating element was tripping a ground fault interrupt and “the woman in Jakarta had experienced that problem before,” says Seltzer.
What’s remarkable is that people are taking the extra step to document how-to instructions for repair that someone else can use. One of those people is James Durand, who writes up repair endeavors on his website AsherMade, including fixing an ice cream machine, a coffee grinder, and a particularly challenging controller on a broken mini lathe. He writes: “This repair tested the limits of my board troubleshooting and repair abilities. It was frustrating at times to find and fix issues only to reveal more issues, but I am glad I stuck with it as I now have a fully functional lathe.”
Sites like iFixit also offer a library of useful repair how-to’s, written by volunteer contributors. This is good news if you want to repair something yourself. The resources of this global community are a boon to anyone wanting help fixing something.
Trouble is, despite these resources, most people today don’t bother to do repairs or even seek out people to do the repair for them. For many, the default is to throw things away and then buy a replacement. Lamps, appliances, vacuum cleaners, phones, and computers — all these find their way to the dump where they are crushed, shredded, and pulverized. The environmental impacts are obvious and unsustainable.
Manufacturers have also been making it harder for consumers to repair devices or find replacement parts. Nathan Proctor, director of U.S. PIRG’s Campaign for the Right to Repair, says that many corporations seek “to monopolize repair and take control of it or they are ambivalent about repair by designing devices that cannot be repaired.” Lobbyists for the consumer electronics industry have fought hard against right-to-repair legislation, often using a smokescreen of fear, claiming that they are protecting consumers by locking them out. There’s a lot more manufacturers could do if they wanted to make a product last longer but first they need to accept that responsibility. They could be a lot more open about what’s inside a device, how to replace parts that go bad and how to fix things that go wrong. Until they do, this global repair community will struggle to find workarounds.
At Make:, one of our earliest T-shirts had the slogan, in the words of Mr. Jalopy, “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” We stand for a vision of an open and collaborative world in which people are empowered to modify, fix, and improve the things they use. Makers are not like every other consumer. We find real satisfaction in learning how to fix things and restore their value. Most importantly, we can show others that they can do this themselves, with the generous help of a global community.
This article appeared in Make: Volume 80. Subscribe today for more articles and projects delivered directly to your mailbox.