Reclaiming Repair Wrap-Up Part One: What Do We Mean By Repair?

I promised myself and others I’d try to write up a bit on the Reclaiming Repair workshop I attended at CHI 2013. So far I’ve only got about half of what I wanted to say written up, and it’s already long, so I thought I’d post it before finals weeks swallow me whole and this gets stale.

I think the theme that was most important to take back to those organizing community hackerspaces is that the term “hacker” is unknown or alienating to many people who might be otherwise interested in the idea of fixing their own stuff to save money or lighten their impact on the environment. Likewise “maker” as it is used by Make Magazine, hackers, and other fellow travellers, though it carries less of an off-putting charge.

We did a lot of talking about terms, an activity which can feel frustratingly un-useful in some cases; but in the case of this workshop, it seemed like we were doing it for the first time to bring together diverse groups. It seemed necessary. The terms on the table were “repairing,” “hacking,” “making,” “mending,” and “fixing.” Here’s how we thought of them:

“Mending” felt to some of us like it had rather a domestic charge and was something done indoors, invisibly to the public — possibly by women, though the nuances of “mending” might cross gender boundaries more out of the US. (It was largely put forth by Jonnet Middleton, who found that while “making” and the other terms trended over time on Google’s ngram viewer, “mending”‘s line remained subtle and flat.)

“Mending” also had a sense of care to it, we noted. And “mending” in the clothing sense had an awareness of time and change in it: fixing an item so you can keep using it, and maybe slowly changing it over time.

“Fixing” might by contrast be something done on the house’s outside as well as in, or in more public places like garages and other stores; it does, at the same time, carry a vagueness (“fix this broken political system”) and additional unpleasant connotations like “fixing a boxing match.”

We noted that “hacking” has a long tradition and wide variety of meanings within the world of computing. In rough chronological order, these include:

  • building something (the original MIT programmers called each other hackers)
  • building it elegantly (their term of appreciation for each other’s work)
  • breaking into something (for good or ill, political or personal gain, or for fun or to learn)
  • “owning” something for yourself by getting into its workings (having the right to work on the Linux operating system or make the DVD you bought in Japan work for you in the US)
  • re-making something to make it do something cooler (making a Lego case for your computer)
  • or, as I have heard one or two young Columbia comp sci students who were not Of The Tradition use it, it can mean jerry-rigging something, so that it comes out crap.

So “hacking” has meanings well outside of repair, and indeed hackers’ interest in repair (and restoration of old machines) is probably lost to the public eye.

“Maker” in the Silicon Valley sense is a quite recent invention compared to any of the other terms. Within its meaning the sense of fixing something is lost: you can just as easily make something from scratch, maybe buying a bunch of supplies from a ready-made craft store like Michael’s or a kit from Radio Shack to do it. And this began to rub the ethos of our room full of repair fans — many of whom were explicitly trying to wean us all off of consumption and disposable culture — the wrong way. Many in the room were unaware of the American “maker” movement to begin with, and felt the populations they worked with were as well. Gustavo Marfia, who is from Italy, said he thought that traditional European artisans, in particular, would find the use of the word confusing and off-putting. “We have artisans,” he said; “how do we have ‘makers’?” “Maker” leaves it open as to what you make, which can be a bit insulting if you’ve devoted your life to perfecting a craft.

Along those lines, I was thinking back to a recent Bitch Magazine article which accused urban gardeners (I’m guilty), vegetable-canners, knitters, chicken-raisers (guilty again), and other revivers of old skills of co-opting traditions from poor communities which, over the past century, were often (and still are) ridiculed by American mainstream culture. And now many of the tools of these crafts are sold in pricey boutiques (see: Williams-Sonoma chicken coop sold for thousands of dollars) which people who really needed them for survival could never afford.

So out of all of these terms, “repairing” seemed the most neutral, though also perhaps a bit more like something done within an institution (a car garage, etc.) It’s transparent — most people know immediately what it means — and speaks of a wide range of people involved, places to do it, and tasks it can apply to.

For hackers who go to HOPE, at least, this is pretty good news: we already have a pretty good connection to the Right To Repair movement. Tiffany Rad, a great HOPE contributor, has been helping champion laws and tools that ensure independent car repair shops and owners have as much access as they need in order to work on cars (in an era when they are highly computerized) as repair shops licensed by car companies do. Kyle Wiens from iFixit also noted that “fixer” has been a nicely media-friendly term for him, while “mender” has been a harder sell.

But it speaks to the need to keep reaching out to and building alliances with repair groups, and to keep emphasizing our friendliness. A handful of the savvy folks at the repair workshop were not so aware of what hackers are often concerned about. One of the repair-group organizers — Janet Gunter from The Restart Project in London — described a London hackspace she’d been to as “scary,” full of “intimidating people.” “The people who are eager for repair are not the Makers; they’re not the ones with laser cutters,” she said. Janet holds her pop-up workshops in established community spaces. The people who attend are often older and do not feel confident with technology. The same goes for the Fixers Collective in Brooklyn, which insists that they are not a drop-off space where people can get things repaired. Rather, they encourage people to be there to help fix their things with guidance from the regulars.

So it is worth building new spaces with non-hackers in mind (hey! you might need to learn about race, class, gender, and demands on the human lifespan like childhood, parenthood, and old age to do this! I recommend talking to Stephanie Alarcon about it).

Older and younger people, in particular, may have different reasons for wanting to be involved in repair, different reviews of why and when to repair, and of course different skillsets. We posited that younger people may be doing it as an innovative futurist effort, while older people may be looking back to things they or their parents once knew.

Takes on repair and other conservation efforts also vary substantially by place. When I spoke to Tom Erickson from IBM (outside of the repair workshop) about work he is doing in Dubuque to help the city achieve its goal of being fully self-sustaining energy-wise, he said that talking about the effort as a means to impact climate change is pretty much a no-go. Rather, people in the area talk about it in terms of “frugality,” and the way their families made ends meet back in their farming days. To really have a broad reach, repair movements may well need to frame themselves in similar ways. Fortunately, that connection is obvious to a lot of people, particularly those who grew up poor, had relatives who lived through the Depression, people who did not grow up in the United States, etc.

It is also worth sorting out for ourselves what we mean, and what we want to not mean, about fixing and making things. Does it mean making an object do something new? Inventing a new kind of object? Changing an old thing? Extending its life? Can you buy a bunch of stuff to make the things you need, or do we mean making do with what you have?

Do we think we can teach people how to repair in a “cookbook” style, with pat instructions, or do we want to teach people how to do forensic work to figure out what is broken — a kind of work which is the bread and butter of repair people around the world? (This was Vincent Lai’s excellent distinction.)

Is it something everyone does, or something we may not have the time, parts, or skills to do ourselves, and do we then need to hand it off to someone else? Do we do it individually, or in groups? Another group in the discussion talked about this a lot, about the value or pleasure of being able to repair things yourself, versus “wanting shoemakers to be around but not feeling the need to repair shoes myself.” Sara Heitlinger, who has worked on urban sustainability efforts, pointed out the importance of having heterogeneous groups of people who can teach each other, a community where there is learning instead of a community where there is a division of labor.

And finally, what kinds of infrastructure do we need as support?

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