Care and Repair for All That Is Broken

October 7, 2021 10:30 am || By

This article contends that a ‘right to repair’ accentuates much more than the choice and freedom to repair devices. Instead, a repair can mean much more in the scheme of our relationships with our devices, nature, and each other (humans). The notion of repair can be conjured as a heuristic device to nurture a sense of care and reconciliation with our broken—in addition to devices—world of social and natural relationships.

As the name suggests, the right to repair is about giving consumers the ability and a choice to repair their own devices or bring them to a technician of their choosing. Right to repair advocates posit that when consumers own a product, they should be able to do whatever they want with it, including repair, open, and modify them.[1] In addition, they also demand that companies provide access to the tools and components essential for product repair, or at least not impede when individuals or groups try to gain access to those resources.

Right to repair advocates notes several anti-repair practices done by companies, such as restricting access to product schematics and diagnostic software.[2] Suing individuals or groups that modify, open, or repair their products for intellectual property violation.[3] Utilizing exclusive contracts with manufacturers, making independent repairs shops unable to access replacement parts.[4] Lastly, making repairs, when at all possible, the exclusive domain of in-house and authorized repair shops, dictating prices, even making them go up.[5] This is made all the more devious because when devices break down, they are often by design. 

The production of commodities, now, are designed with Planned Obsolescence (PO) in mind. PO is a strategy of industrial design to limit a product’s lifespan and make it obsolete, unfashionable, or no longer functional after a certain period.[6] Rivera and Lallmahomed argue that PO is designed to create mass consumption, they also created a typology of four kinds of PO[7]:

  1. Functional obsolescence is when a product becomes outdated because there is a new product with improved technology and functionality.
  2. Psychological obsolescence is where a product is designed to trigger the desire to buy more or buy the newest version of a product. Psychological obsolescence is also induced through a false sense of need.
  3. Systemic obsolescence, where a product is systematically altered to make it more difficult to use or cancelling a product’s maintenance service. Products are then often repairable but are made expensive to encourage consumers to buy a new product.
  4. Breakdown obsolescence, where a product is designed to stop working after a predetermined number of use cycles purposefully.

It can be surmised that companies are economically incentivized to let or make devices break, restrict repairs, and make consumers buy new products. Furthermore, much research has found that this type of design harms our natural environments, with broken devices being thrown away and the subsequent production of new devices results in further extraction of natural resources.[8] The right to repair movement was born to ensure that repairs are possible at the consumer level and that products are designed for repair at the producer level.

As a movement, the right to repair has gained traction in Europe and the United States (U. S.). [9] In July 2021, U. S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to draft new regulations limiting manufacturers’ ability to restrict independent product repairs.[10] Electronic manufacturers and those in objection to the right to repair movement often cite that providing the option for repair compromises their devices’ and their consumers’ security. However, security experts found this claim to be dubious. Furthermore, the U. S. FTC reports that “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”[11]  

As it turns out, there is much more to the right to repair than just repairing devices; it also serves as a gateway to a new discourse. “The true repairman will repair, man,” says John Goodman in the TV show Community.[12] Beyond reparations of our devices, Wilson argues that there is a connection between the way society treats material objects and how it treats people.[13] Wilson contends that repairs are a form of care and an expression of collective knowledge. Citing the ethnographer Francisco Martinez, Wilson argues that repair encourages people not to abandon people and things.[14] This is because repair and reparation are not only transactional and do not only occur at repair shops, independent or otherwise.

Repairs can also take place in a community setting. One example is the Repair Café, a free, volunteer-based, and globally organized community activity. Repair Café volunteers can fix various devices, including small household appliances, electronics, clothes, and bicycles. Repair Café is a praxis of the right to repair movement. They see repair as a social necessity to save money, produce less waste, and teach people—if they are interested—how to repair their devices.[15] Indeed, because repairs are done in the presence of those who bring their broken devices, Madon founds that people who experience the interaction of repair gain new knowledge and reflexively think to repair before throwing away. Madon also stipulates Repair Café as an anti-consumerist movement, because of their intention and attraction of making people buy less goods. 

Wakkary and Tanenbaum posit that engaging in repair, renewal, and reuse will lead to a more sustainable Human-Computer Interaction.[16] Furthermore, Blanco-Wells argues for using “repair” as a heuristic device to conjure ecologies of repair: seeking to repair the damage provoked by the effects of industrial process and transforming the conditions of coexistence for various life—and nonliving—forms.[17] That is the repair of our devices, the repair and mending of broken relationships and trust broken amongst people, and the reparation towards the natural world. Repair must not stop at decreasing the amount of waste at landfills, much less the cost of consumption. Repair must be brought to the fore of a sense of crisis. Much so because, if forecasts are accurate, beyond 2030, our (human) time on this Earth will be beyond reparation.[18]

To reiterate, the right to repair can mean more than the consumers’ choice to repair and saving money or independent repair shops to make money. It also forces companies to be more responsible in their product design. Right to repair also reinforces movements of anti-consumerism and environmentalism. Beyond that, it teaches us to care about people, about machines, about nature. To demand and be demanded to repair all that is broken.

Author: Alfredo Putrawidjoyo
Editor: Sri Handayani Nasution


[1] iFixit (no date) We Have the Right to Repair Everything We Own, iFixit. Available at: https://www.ifixit.com/Right-to-Repair/Intro (Accessed: 21 September 2021).

[2] Hanley, D., Kelloway, C. and Vaheesan, S. (2021) Fixing America: Breaking Manufacturers’ Aftermarket Monopoly and Restoring Consumers’ Right to Repair. Open Market Institute, p. 37. Available at: https://www.openmarketsinstitute.org/publications/fixing-america-breaking-manufacturers-aftermarket-monopoly-restoring-consumers-right-repair.

[3] Mikolajczak, C. (2020) ‘Apple crushes one-man repair shop in Norway’s Supreme Court, after three-year battle’, Right to Repair Europe, 4 June. Available at: https://repair.eu/news/apple-crushes-one-man-repair-shop/ (Accessed: 21 September 2021); See also Mitchell, S. (2018) ‘Narratives of Resistance and Repair in Consumer Society’, Third Text, 32(1), pp. 56-61. doi:10.1080/09528822.2018.1459110.

[4] Hanley, D.A. (2020) ‘The First Thing a Biden FTC Should Tackle’, Slate, 18 November. Available at: https://slate.com/technology/2020/11/biden-ftc-right-repair-exclusive-contracts.html (Accessed: 21 September 2021).

[5] Chanthadavong, A. (2021) Digital Right to Repair Coalition warns repair monopolies are pervasive and unavoidable, ZDNet. Available at: https://www.zdnet.com/article/digital-right-to-repair-coalition-warns-repair-monopolies-are-pervasive-and-unavoidable/ (Accessed: 21 September 2021).

[6] Bulow, 1986 in Rivera, J.L. and Lallmahomed, A. (2016) ‘Environmental implications of planned obsolescence and product lifetime: a literature review’, International Journal of Sustainable Engineering, 9(2), p. 119. doi:10.1080/19397038.2015.1099757.

[7] Rivera and Lallmahomed, 2016, pp. 120-121.

[8] Crosby, A. et al. (2019) Design and repair must work together to undo our legacy of waste, The Conversation. Available at: http://theconversation.com/design-and-repair-must-work-together-to-undo-our-legacy-of-waste-119932 (Accessed: 11 September 2021).

[9] The Digital Right to Repair Coalition (no date) About, The Repair Association. Available at: https://www.repair.org/aboutus (Accessed: 21 September 2021); Right to Repair (no date) ‘What we want’, Right to Repair Europe. Available at: https://repair.eu/what-we-want/ (Accessed: 21 September 2021).

[10] Goode, L. (2021) ‘Joe Biden Wants You to Be Able to Fix Your Own Damn iPhones’, Wired, 9 July. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/biden-executive-order-right-to-repair/ (Accessed: 21 September 2021).

[11] Klosowski, T. (2021) ‘What You Should Know About Right to Repair’, New York Times; Wirecutter, 15 July. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/what-is-right-to-repair/ (Accessed: 12 September 2021).

[12] Shapeero, T. (2012) ‘Introduction to Finality’, Community. NBC, emphasis added.

[13] Wilson, K. (2019) Mending hearts: how a ‘repair economy’ creates a kinder, more caring community, The Conversation. Available at: http://theconversation.com/mending-hearts-how-a-repair-economy-creates-a-kinder-more-caring-community-113547 (Accessed: 11 September 2021).

[14] Wilson, 2019.

[15] Madon, J. (2021) ‘Free repair against the consumer society: How repair cafés socialize people to a new relationship to objects’, Journal of Consumer Culture, p. 3. doi:10.1177/1469540521990871.

[16] Wakkary and Tanenbaum in Mitchell, S. (2018) ‘Narratives of Resistance and Repair in Consumer Society’, Third Text, 32(1), p. 66. doi:10.1080/09528822.2018.1459110.

[17] Blanco-Wells, G. (2021) ‘Ecologies of Repair: A Post-human Approach to Other-Than-Human Natures’, Frontiers in Psychology, 12, p. 2. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.633737.

[18] Blanco-Wells, 2021, p. 3.