By Clive Thompson
Madison Sheffield cracks open a toaster oven, jams her hand inside, then turns on the power. It looks like she’s about to electrocute herself, but she seems unfazed. “Thermostat or heating element?” Sheffield mutters, yanking on wires and poking around with a multimeter. “Why isn’t this working?”
She isn’t the only one in this crowded room trying to get busted hardware working. A few feet away, a trio of people are elbow-deep in a vintage VCR, and there’s another team performing surgery on a lava lamp. It’s a typical meeting of the Fixers Collective, an ad hoc group of tinkerers in Brooklyn. Once a month, in an art gallery, they offer to repair anything neighbors can carry. People troop in with PCs, lamps, appliances—piles of stuff we typically pitch in the garbage at the first hint of trouble. As I watch for three hours, the fixers get everything up and running (except the lava lamp).
The spectacle of dead goods coming back to life isn’t just useful—for the locals, it’s transformative. “I was a totally different person after they fixed my laptop,” says Nicole DeLuca, a filmmaker who had her MacBook repaired last year. “It made me realize I didn’t need to buy new every time some-thing breaks.”
You’ve heard about the “maker movement,” the geeks who’ve been rebooting America’s craft tradition. It’s a grassroots success story, refueling interest in engineering and giving kids practical skills with tools. But now we need something new. We need to apply those maker skills to what we already own, giving broken devices a new lease on life.
We need, in short, a fixer movement. This would be a huge cultural shift. In the twentieth century, U.S. firms aggressively promoted planned obsolescence, designing things to break. Buying new was our patriotic duty: “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace,” marketer Victor Lebow wrote in 1955.
Today e-waste has become one of the fastest-growing categories of refuse. We chucked out 2.4 million tons of it in 2010 and recycled just 27 percent. And “recycling” often means shipping electronics overseas, where the toxic parts pollute developing countries. It’s a mess. A fixer movement could break this century-old system.
One superb place to start is fixing computers—because these days old models perform nearly as well as new ones. As hardware hacker Andrew Huang has noted, cloud computing has artificially slowed Moore’s law: An older laptop runs a browser just fine. Plus, computers are often surprisingly fixable. Vincent Lai, a Fixers Collective volunteer, gets handed “dead” laptops—“and for $20 I can fix it. It’s a user-replaceable part! For $20 the user could have fixed it.”
Plus, the ecosystem for fixing has never been better. YouTube has plenty of how-to-fix-it videos; sites like iFixit sell parts and post repair guides for tech new and old. Better yet, the advent of cheap 3-D printers makes new types of repairs possible. In Chicago, Ally Brisbin runs a repair night at her café and says, “My boyfriend brings in his MakerBot, so if you need a part he can print it.”
But to really thrive, a fixer movement needs more than elbow grease. It needs manufacturers on board. Right now electronics makers often design their stuff so it’s impossible to repair. Components aren’t swappable or are glued together.
“It’s design anorexia—thinner and thinner and thinner,” iFixit’s Kyle Wiens complains. Some are better than others: Wiens finds Dells very fixable, while Apples are much worse. Just to get an iPad open, Wiens had to make a rice-filled pillow that he could heat up and lay on top of the tablet to gently loosen the adhesive.
So we could use some political action here. Laws could mandate that goods be designed with swappable parts. But perhaps more feasibly, we could institute fat tax incentives for those who design for fixing. We should mandate longer warranties, which now often last only weeks. (If manufacturers are on the hook for extended periods, they’ll have to make stuff that’s easier to repair—benefiting pro and amateur fixers alike.)
Here’s a simpler approach: We could carve out a copyright exemption for service manuals. Many manufacturers—like Apple—don’t post their manuals online, and they serve takedown notices to anyone who does. And how about an online repository of scanned plastic parts? When the hinge breaks on your HP laptop, print a new one. (It’s legal; devices are patented, but components usually aren’t.)
Ultimately, the real challenge here isn’t technological. It’s cultural. Can fixing be made sexy? Can we make it delightful to preserve things?
I think so. Recently my kids were hankering for a laptop. So we pulled a five-year-old Dell from a closet. After consulting some YouTube how-tos and the manual (Dell circulates those freely), we deduced that we needed a new heat sink, keyboard, and DVD drive. When the parts arrived, we opened the case and dove in.
And you know what? It was shockingly easy. In three hours we had the laptop running perfectly. We even removed the syphilitic mess of Windows Vista and installed Ubuntu. For $90 in parts, the kids have a laptop that runs like new. Best of all, we felt like we had unlocked superpowers. We demystified the machine. We became puzzle solvers and fought against the waves of trash. It was so much fun that now we’re taking in our neighbors’ busted laptops and fixing them, too.
We started off upgrading a machine, and wound up upgrading ourselves.
Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. His latest book is Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, published by Penguin Group in 2013.
This article originally appeared in Wired magazine. Reprinted with permission.
Photo: The Toaster Crew, London