Why Gadget Repairability Is So Damn Important

iFixit/CC BY 3.0

When iFixit published their teardown of the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display, it was criticized for being virtually unrepairable. It received a 1 out of 10, with 10 being the most repairable, and iFixit's Kyle Weins lamented that "The Retina MacBook is the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart."

One of the most common responses I heard after writing this up -- even from equally green-minded friends and colleagues -- is, essentially, "so what?" The argument is that the vast majority of consumers are not going to repair their own laptops and Apple's customer service will take care of what does break, which means making it repairable (and thus sacrificing the thin, slim, fast features for something slightly bulkier, slightly heavier, and thus subjectively less attractive) is not a logical or necessary choice for a company to make.

But that's exactly the problem.

This fairly simple thing -- Apple creating a practically unrepairable product and few people caring -- seems clear enough on the outside, but in reality this is a deeply complicated issue. At its core lies individuals' environmental responsibility, consumerism, wastefulness, capitalism's growth for growth's sake, business environmental accountability and, very importantly, our lack of drive to want to fix what's broke.

iFixit/CC BY 3.0

If you can't open it, you don't own it.

It's incredible to think of the amount of control we give companies over our lives because we buy stuff that we can't hack, modify or customize for ourselves. We give them control over repair services, warranties, how often we replace our devices. We give them control over design, functionality, and features. When we can't even get past the "Will Void Warranty" stickers, then we are simply leasing a device until we buy the next new model. We don't actually own it, it isn't ours to do as we'd like with. Where then, is the pride of ownership? Where then is the responsibility one takes for their devices?

If you can't open it, you don't own it; and what's worse is that if you can't or won't open it, then you're not fully grasping the actual impact of and potential for that device. You're likely not understanding how much of a footprint that device has had on the planet and will have when you're done with it too quickly, and what that means to our collective future. You're not incensed at how its manufacturer is taking your mind for granted, your wallet for granted, your choices as a consumer for granted, even the materials it takes to make its products for granted. Your creativity and inventiveness is tossed aside and you are told what you will want, when you will want it. After all, if something is not repairable, it will have to be replaced in the near future, right?

Does that all sound too shrill to you? It might be. Until you stop to soak in the disturbing information about e-waste statistics, the realities of e-waste dumps, and the complicated web of how disposable devices affect our daily lives. There is little reason not to feel some degree of alarm when we consider what it means to have a major electronics manufacturer pumping out a new laptop that cannot be easily repaired. And it may also seem shrill until you stop to consider what you may have to offer to the technology sphere with your ideas, your hacks or modifications that perfect your device for personal uses. Think about what is being taken out of your hands by devices that cannot be opened up.

Take a moment to read this, and consider what it means to you:
© iFixit

Repairability is not only about DIY home repair, it's about small business

One of the arguments associated with repairability of electronics is that the average person could make worse any problem they might be trying to repair if they were encouraged to do it themselves. When it comes to computers, that's fairly true. And when it comes to replacing that glued-in battery of the new MacBook Pro with Retina, it is absolutely true. However, while DIY repair is an important component of repair culture, it's not the only component.

Repairability is important because a person other than the one that manufactures and sells the device should be able to open up and fix an item if they have the proper tools and know-how. As in, local repair experts. Is it really so great that the only option a person has if their new MacBook Pro with Retina battery poops out is to go to the Apple store and have the entire top case replaced? No. A battery in a laptop should be user replaceable, and for those who don't want to DIY it, it should be able to be easily replaced by any repair person of their choosing.

Indeed, it should be possible to have pretty much any part of an electronic device repaired or replaced by a professional -- including those professionals who start up their own local repair businesses. Without repairability, companies like PhoneDoctors, which both repair gadgets and encourage others to start up their own repair services, couldn't exist. Repairability is good for small businesses, which means it's good for local economies. And it's just simply logical to make something that has more than one avenue for repair -- the easier it is to fix, the more likely the device will actually be fixed. And that's good for the environment, which means it is good for everyone.

© Brian Duggan

Repairing gadgets because it's the right thing to do

The flip side of this is obviously that manufacturers may want only one avenue (their own) to repair gadgets, or they may not want them repaired because the customer is sure to come back looking for the next new thing, and that puts money in their pockets. Sure, the pursuit of growth by manufacturers means repairability is not a priority for design. But however we look at it, this is not sustainable. Constant replacement of entire devices -- cell phones at the rate of one every 18 months, laptops at the rate of one every two years, and so on -- just is not environmentally feasible. So, it comes down to the fact that if we do not make gadgets repairable then we are making them essentially disposable, and that is a serious issue for the planet.

We used to be a lot better at this when electronics weren't as complicated, and didn't require as many specialized tools or as much specialized knowledge as they do now. Today, there are plenty of people who try to fix their computer on their own only to break it worse. But it should not be impossible to find someone nearby with the knowledge and ability to repair something. It should be the priority of manufacturers to make their devices repairable, instead of replaceable.

Making repairable gadgets -- and repairing them when needed -- is simply the right thing to do. It's the smart thing to do. The sustainable thing to do. It's the environmentally and socially ethical thing to do. And yes, repairing your own devices can certainly be the fun thing to do!

Tags: Do It Yourself | Gadgets | longreads | Repair