We live in an era of rapid technological development and ever increasing complexity of the products we use, but as technology is advancing it seems to be getting more and more locked down. Are companies making products harder to repair in the interest of consumer safety or out of corporate greed? Tech firms will insist that most consumers aren’t qualified to make high-quality and safe repairs, however DIYers feel they are being denied a basic right.
Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do
Gone are the days when you would go to your local repair shop to fix your malfunctioning TV, these days you’re better off binning it and get a brand new one, preferably three inches larger than your neighbour’s. Today’s reality is that companies are increasingly locking down their products to others from making repairs, and at the same time are resisting legislation to enable third-party repair services, and it’s setting a worrying precedent. Many independent repair shops are being driven out of business due to lack of cooperation from manufactures in providing spares and repair documentation.
“Manufacturers keep restricting access to service documentation, parts, and software—which forces consumers into more expensive ‘manufacturer-authorized’ repairs and drives small repair shops out of business…” — Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit.com
In 2012 Nikon announced that they would no longer supply replacement components to anyone, instead all repairs would be made through their own repair service. As well as devastating the livelihoods of independent repair personnel, this move has made it more arduous for photographers to have their camera fixed. Nikon claims that their products are becoming too complex for unofficial repairs, however this claim seems ridiculous considering the repair website iFixit offers repair guides for over 90 separate Nikon products and counting!
Meanwhile large companies such as Apple are actively lobbying against right-to-repair laws and are known to deliberately disable phones that have been serviced by third parties. Apple have gone as far as creating bespoke tools for ‘in house’ repair, ensuring that other repairs remain sub-standard. Why? In order to add another type of built in obsolescence, to encourage you to buy a new phone every few years or succumb to artificially inflated repair costs. Apple may argue that third-party repairs are second-rate and dangerous, however many high quality services already exist and providing them with replacement components and proper documentation would only enhance their quality and safety.
From a utilitarian point of view, facilitating the repair of broken products makes perfect sense, it allows millions of consumers to save money, discourages a wasteful throw-away culture, creates independent jobs and prevents companies from forming a monopoly on repairs. Companies could benefit too, making a market from selling spare parts. Our culture’s shift away from repairing leads to massive amounts of waste, in fact 50 million tonnes of electronics waste is produced every year. Within that “waste” lies perfectly functioning parts as well as a huge amount of useful material including rare earth minerals, precious metals and, which are vital for the manufacture of all modern electronics yet supplies are rapidly being depleted. Recycling helps to recover some of these materials however it is predicted that only a pitiful 13% of e-waste generated each year is recycled. A much better solution would simply be to become a less wasteful society by repairing our electronic devices instead of replacing them.
But do we really need repairs?
After stories of exploding phones swept the news, the importance of consumer safety throughout the lifetime of a product has been brought into sharp relief. Allowing an unrestricted flow of untested third party components and repairs could cause a deluge of dangerous goods to flood the consumer market. Why should an engineer be forced to allow their years of precision design work to be damaged and destroyed by penny pinching do-it-yourselfers?
Imagine the chaos if companies let everyone try to repair their products. While some people may be able to fix things perfectly, many of us would lack the necessary skills and would end up making the problem worse. If these inevitable damages had to be covered by warranties, then the total cost of our products would skyrocket to cover it. Should we all have to pay the cost to allow the chosen few to tear apart their phones?
We all love new tech innovations, whether it’s getting that extra 30 minutes on our phone battery or getting the latest lightweight laptop. If companies had to make more repairable devices, then it would either mean using more standardised components or releasing designs for their new breakthrough technology. Eliminating this competitive edge from innovation would not only make it more difficult for the companies to make a profit, but deprive us of any potentially revolutionary breakthroughs they could otherwise make.
But what about all the companies whose very existence relies on offering repairs of their own products? Rolls Royce PLC, for example, generates the majority of their income from repair contracts. If they could not guarantee customers would return for repairs, they would be unable operate and pay their almost 50,000 employees a suitable wage. And if companies can’t maintain this source of income, where is the incentive to make repairable devices in the first place?
More than ever, we rely on devices like our phones to perform everyday tasks, whether it’s paying for that vital morning coffee or snapchatting questionable photos. If we allowed third party repairs, who’s to say that the cheap repair shop on the corner isn’t adding extra bits into your phone to spy on you? Or hacking into your personal data to steal your credit card details? With all of the sensitive data we keep, trust in the people who carry out our repairs is paramount. While companies are under close scrutiny from the world’s media and law enforcement, smaller companies can operate unchecked. Would you really want to leave your security and privacy in their hands?
Living in a culture of yearly upgrade cycles and fashionable phones, right to repair is fighting against the inevitable. Focusing on recycling and reusing the endless rare earth metals contained in our tech is already a big target for manufacturers, with Apples Liam robot deconstructing 1.2 million iPhones a year. The idealist right to repairers may like the idea of lego smartphones, but how long until their demented dreams fall to pieces?
Group 74: Henry Gibson, Rahul Philip, James Wingham, Lewis Parsons