Reclaiming Repair Wrap-Up Part Two: The Big Ideas

Kintsugi, we learned, is the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold dust in the join, creating new beauty while also making the object usable again. Photo from

Kintsugi, we learned, is the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold dust in the join, creating new beauty while also making the object usable again. Photo from

The Reclaiming Repair workshop was full of interesting perspectives — from cell phone repair shops in Uganda and India, “repair cafés” in Europe, artists from all over, even from a space exploration mission — but perhaps the person with the highest-level practical view of repair was Kyle Wiens, of iFixit. The site, which Kyle founded in 2003, touts itself as the Wikipedia of repair manuals: the site aims to have a manual for pretty much any problem, for pretty much anything. Kyle clearly thinks of his work as a matter of social change, and thus he’s thinking of more than just how to pry open the latest iPad.

Re-educating The Richest One Billion

Kyle views supporting repair as the mission of iFixit, and this includes educating people about repair work. “It’s only the richest one billion or so people in the world who don’t repair things,” he noted at one point; Americans in particular have been encouraged by an economy driven by mass production to discard rather than repair and re-use. Outside of the novelty-driven, disposable, affluent cultures of the US (which have, of course, never been the only cultures here), talk of “return” to repair would seem strange: repair is part of life. Now, with the stagnation of the American economy, the calculus of buying new versus fixing old is changing a little.

The pervasiveness of repair work throughout the world was the focus of a few papers submitted to the workshop. Two were on cell phone repair work, some in Uganda and some in India. The details of this work struck me. Lara Houston showed a slide of a Ugandan repairman’s fix of the circuits of a phone. Lara indicated the area he was diagnosing, a ribbon of connectors between two parts which was broken by a blackened line. (I was advised to handle this kind of ribbon carefully when following an Instructables guide to hacking a soft Dance Dance Revolution pad into a hard-backed one.) To fix the break, the repairman had scraped away some resin with a razor, then painstakingly soldered tiny, delicate wires to each side of the break, making for a pipey, steampunk-looking, possibly tentative fix. I’m not even sure how he would have fit it back inside the phone without his wires breaking. But apparently it worked.*

Jonnet Middleton also delivered a verbal report on repair work on different technologies (cars, eyeglasses, clothes mending, etc) in Cuba; while she identifies as an artist, her attention to the subtleties of how such work is valued there would be equally valuable to an anthropologist. She noted that one man she talked to in Cuba kept referring to his brother as “guapo” — “cute” or “sexy” in other Spanish dialects — which confused her until she realized the word also had a charge of “handy” as it was being used. This, then, is Cuba, cut off from the pipelines of cheap new merchandise, famous for its beautiful cobbled-together cars.

Lay of the Land in the US

Kyle noted there’s been a 14% growth in repair as a sector of the US economy (I didn’t catch over what period), and that cell phone repair stores are particularly strong. He noted that Apple, in particular, could be doing much more to exploit this market — the Genius Bar and stores address only a fragment of the people who could use more service — but its size essentially prices it out of the market; it’s not cost-effective for them to participate. Repair is a sector we ought to grow, Kyle suggested; manufacturing jobs went overseas, and he was not bullish on the prospect of their coming back.

There have been some thoughts about repair in policy and foundation circles. Kyle introduced us to some literature from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (apparently no relation to the MacArthur Foundation) which has led workshops on the “circular economy”: a vision of an economy which would act more like a natural ecology, with waste accounted for and re-used. As it happens, the foundation’s Circular Economy summit is this week, and it’s worth following the #CE100 tag on Twitter to hear what’s being said. Repair is here being spoken of here in the same breath as other ecological efforts such as recycling, which is itself causing a touch of tension; see “Big Shred,” below.

Learning and Knowledge

Kyle and Vincent talked a lot about the process of repair, which, as it happens, is interesting from an educational standpoint. Kyle’s first presentation was on how his team learned to repair the latest Kindle. The story could shock anyone conscious of how much their last digital device cost; iFixit’s techniques involve reflowing solder or loosening adhesive with heat guns or at least hair dryers; applying microwaved sacks of rice for similar purposes; prying things open with screwdrivers and guitar picks. I believe Kyle said his team broke half a dozen iPads before they figured out how to get one open AND keep it working. “The act of repair is one thing,” Kyle said; “figuring out how to do the repair is another.” This is a distinction that many car mechanics know, but the school system has forgotten.

Vincent made the distinction between “cookbook” repair work, where you have a pre-set list of steps to complete, and “forensic” repair work which is more like what Kyle’s group is doing. Vincent later told me that this was, I believe, a distinction he became aware of in a college-level organic chemistry class.

The knowledge of repair people comes under scrutiny from those educated in the Western tradition, noted Lara. When she takes her data back to academia (and I believe she was speaking specifically about engineers of some sort), she is asked, “Do your phone repair people know what they are doing, or are they just fixing the problem?” The implication is that “you don’t know how to repair unless you know how the entire thing works.” This is pretty ludicrous, as someone in the room pointed out, as “the implied counterpoint is imaginary:” the engineers who designed the phone are themselves so distributed that few or even none of them could explain how the entire thing works at all levels. “The work of repair gathers knowledges, re-assembles the knowledges,” someone noted. Drawing on my earlier training in labor studies, it occurred to me this could be called re-skilling, or un-Fordism.**

The question was raised: what is “good enough” repair? Someone brought up the paper about car repair in Ghana, in which the anthropologists whose car was being worked on panicked when they saw the very visible, very provisional nature of what had been done to their car’s fan. Lara noted our sense of what is “good enough” comes from aesthetic senses alienated from the actual functionality of the repair. This is often related to the visibility of the repair: is a hidden repair a better repair? Do we value a repair that leaves a scar (like Lone’s dress with wool-felted decorative fixes, or Japanese pottery repair that includes gold dust in the cement)?

And then: who should have the knowledge of repair? The group allowed that while there is a pleasure in the autonomy of repairing things yourself, there is value in living in a community where the collective knowledge covers a range of repair (i.e., “I want there to be shoemakers in my community, but I don’t need to repair shoes myself.”) The member among us who had lived as a squatter in London for some time felt it was important to have groups of people who could teach each other. She made the distinction between communities where there’s internal learning versus communities where there’s a division of labor.

Organizing Efforts

Kyle is looking to make inroads with car repair communities, involving them more in iFixit. He noted that across cultures car mechanics are generally highly respected for the work they do. He’s looking to ally with them on legal efforts to give people the right to repair their digital devices (as is, of course, our old HOPE buddy Tiffany Rad).

We currently have a few wins for repair under our belts, and other bills pending. The Right To Repair movement resulted in a victory in Massachusetts. Eighty-seven percent of the popular vote passed a law, active 2015, giving individuals and independent repair shops the right to access the same diagnostic and repair information as manufacturers give their franchised shops. The Unlocking Technology Act is currently on the table at the federal level, to accomplish similar goals as well as allowing users to jailbreak and root their phones.

Kyle is planning a legal challenge which will hopefully enable iFixit to post proprietary manuals online with significant community-contributed alterations and additional material of the sort it’s already been generating. iFixit and this legal gambit come from his time working at an Apple repair center, which made him aware of the massive repair manuals the company produces but does not distribute to the public. “Apple uses copyright law to guarantee planned obsolescence,” he said. This law aims to change that.

Key Phrases

Finally, there were a few phrases that came out of the workshop which I couldn’t really fit in elsewhere here, but wanted to add them because they charmed me or struck me as useful tools to think with:

“Object gerontology”: In talking about Marisa’s work on the Cassini Mission, either she or Steven referred to the work being done on the mission’s aging spacecraft as an easing of the object through the end of its life (and of the life of the team, many of whom will likely retire when it’s over). Marisa described the team as gently trying to get as much out of the aging craft as it could.

“Mending tourism”: What Jonnet called her trip to Cuba. I was utterly envious; want to go myself, possibly with media literacy students.

“Resourcerie”: One of the words springing up in the network of the Repair Cafe movement in France. Has more semantic emphasis on recycling or materials, which is not necessarily present in other terms we mulled over.

“Big Shred”: Kyle and Janet described their efforts as in opposition to the large, powerful industry that has sprung up to handle recycling. While these companies are mostly all about breaking down old electronics into raw materials, repair movements are pointing out the energy waste and pollution this entails, among other things.

And then, two sentences in particularly good spirit:

Lone, on her spot-felted, felt-spotted dress: “This is a much lovelier dress than before, and every time there’s in hole in it I go yay!” (One theme: value as arising from the object’s history of use.)

Kyle, to manufacturers: “We do not need your blessing. We’re going to [liberate your repair manuals] whether you like it or not.”


* Seeing this, I recalled Mitch Altman and other circuitbenders’ instructions on black resin dots: the good stuff is always under there, and proprietary, but I think the general inclination was to leave those parts alone as getting the resin off was likely to ruin the thing. And then, of course, circuitbending is a playful, dirty, chance business; you make the connection for a moment, hear the thing squeal, then connect it to something else. This repairman was making a connection that was meant to last and work, preferably without noise, and the resin dot be damned. Yet another moment of illuminating the difference between hacker/maker spaces and repair elsewhere.

**I passed through the town of Dearborn, MI recently, the home of the Henry Ford Museum and the Ford factory. So much of that part of Michigan seems to be in an enthralled sleep. Stilled in a more painfully mundane way, really… the Ford plant is its sclerotic heart. Sic transit gloria mass production. Half an hour away in Chelsea, my father builds new motorcycles out of broken old ones using pre-factory-era hand tools.

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