Products from companies like Apple have proven difficult to repair. A student movement wants to change that - and is celebrating its first successes against the big corporations.
It was just a few years ago when George Orwell’s novel “1984” first raised awareness of the problem. Without warning, Amazon deleted the seminal story about a dystopian surveillance society from its Kindle reader – due to a licensing dispute. The rights of those who had already bought a digital version of the novel seemed of less concern to Amazon. It was a teaching moment about power and property in the digital age.
The lesson continued, but the subject matter changed from the digital content to the material hardware required to access digital communication in the first place. The outstanding example is Apple. Anyone who has ever tried to repair an Apple device without nerd support knows what I'm talking about. “Repairs are a thing of the past” seems to be the mantra of many hardware manufacturers. Here's how it works nowadays: After as brief a period as possible at full functionality, the devices no longer deliver their best performance and are consequently replaced by a newer model. This usually happens just as new models are being prominently announced and made available to the public, and you'd have to be pretty naive to believe it's a coincidence.
Two US students decided they'd had enough. Tired of what they saw as paternalism, they rebelled against the status quo by tinkering with their Apple computers and iPhones until they found a way to repair the devices themselves, for example by replacing the prematurely exhausted batteries or fixing a defective camera. The two students became the leaders of a growing DIY community. Initially they posted pages of repair instructions to the Internet, and eventually created “iFixit”, a comprehensive online handbook complete with an online shop for special tools.
This is already a nice example of how demand leads to supply. And you can learn a lot more by exploring the extensive iFixit archive. For example, that Apple uses special screws in order to prevent people from repairing their own devices. Or that you can't remove the display screen from an iPhone 13 without deactivating the facial recognition technology required to unlock the device.
But the two students’ biggest achievement is that they gave life to a movement that is beginning to have a broad impact – the "right to repair" movement. The devices are expensive, and when they malfunction, everyone should be allowed to fix them themselves, if they desire to do so. This is a good approach if only for reasons of sustainability. It enables those who can't afford to spend a thousand euros for a new smartphone every two years to continue using their devices for a while at little or no cost.
But there’s an overarching message in this movement that’s an important reminder of what’s changing as everyone and everything goes digital. When we buy an iPhone, we expect to acquire ownership of the device. But is it really your property if you can’t do whatever you want with the device, if the service life and performance are entirely at the mercy of the manufacturer? The “right to repair” movement is about restoring ownership. The device is only really yours if you can fix it.
In the USA, this right to genuine ownership of electronic devices has become part of a broader effort to roll back Big Tech’s power. In the autumn of 2020 the Federal Trade Commission took up the issue, and a year later President Joe Biden issued an executive order ensuring the right to repair. The EU Commission plans to come up with a corresponding regulatory proposal this quarter, which should be part of a larger movement towards a circular economy.
And the tech companies? They have elected to go with the flow and made some conciliations. As of this year, Apple allows customers to replace individual parts in their devices (although only with original Apple parts that have to be purchased from the company, of course). Microsoft made a similar decision.
So there it is, the actual power of protest. It leads us to a more comprehensive interpretation of ownership of technical devices, to more sustainability in their use, and at the same time pushes back a little against the monopoly power of the tech companies. There is something enchanting about this that is diametrically opposed to Orwell’s dystopia, which completely deconstructs individualism with tenets like, “Everyone is his neighbor’s property.” The “right to repair” movement is turning the tables. The world is changing a bit because two individuals took a stand.
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