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Repairable tech

There was a time when corner stores had free, self-service “tube testers” to test the health of the vacuum tubes in radios and televisions. With it, savvy owners could diagnose the state of the tubes in their home electronics and replace them as necessary. By placing a tube in the appropriate test socket and pressing a button, a needle would deflect along a scale indicating whether the tube was good, weak or bad.

As a young electronics enthusiast growing up in the ‘80s I learned about diagnosing transistors and diodes, the devices that eventually replaced vacuum tubes in virtually all electronics. Armed with a soldering iron and a simple multimeter I was able to attempt repairs to televisions, stereos, computers and appliances. When I couldn’t, I often harvested the item for spare parts (and at one point these “spare parts” almost filled a room). Repairing devices was one way in which I gradually learned about electronics, an interest that eventually grew into a career as an engineer. The local library carried reference books with schematic diagrams of popular consumer electronics, and replacement parts could be obtained from a variety of suppliers. Many early computers came with schematic diagrams and chips were socketed, enabling easy replacement. Neighbourhood electronics and TV stores would often employ a technician who could repair electronics for a reasonable hourly rate.

Responsible tech is repairable
But the days of electronics repair are nearly gone. Labels indicating “no user serviceable parts inside” are common and just opening a device has become challenging, with proprietary fasteners and “tamper-resistant” screws. Many modern electronic devices come in small packages or with fine-pitch connections that are hard to remove or solder without specialized equipment. Even with proper equipment, repair guides or schematic diagrams are scarce and many products contain proprietary parts that are hard to find. Vast numbers of smartphones and tablets contain fragile components like glass screens, but many manufacturers withhold parts and repair information from independent repair shops. The fact is that manufacturers would much rather have you purchase a new product than repair your existing one.

A group of concerned digital-rights advocates, environmentalists and repair technicians have joined together to form Repair.org to advocate legislation ensuring the “right to repair” our equipment. Due to the efforts of groups like these, “right to repair” legislation is beginning to appear in various states in the U.S. Other efforts have focused on sites like iFixIt.org, a website designed to share information about device repairs. The iFixIt site includes a “Repair Manifesto” which states “we hold these truths to be self-evident” followed by statements like: “if you can’t fix it, you don’t own it” and “repair is better than recycling.”

Stopping e-waste
This is not only a justice issue of retaining the “right to repair” or access to repair information, it is also a stewardship issue. Global e-waste is rising faster than the population, reaching 41.8 million tonnes in 2014 (according to a United Nation University report). It is estimated that less than one-sixth of this was properly recycled or reused. Electronic waste contains hazardous substances like lead and cadmium that can pollute the soil and water. As consumers of electronic devices we contribute to the problem – especially when we neglect to responsibly dispose or recycle our devices.

Alternatives to purchasing “disposable” electronics are gradually appearing. One recent product called the Fairphone provides an “ethical, modular phone.” The phone is designed around replaceable modules that can be easily repaired, from the screen to the battery to the audio jack. The company sells spare parts and offers repair tutorials to its users. The company explores ways to make phones more recyclable and provides a “take back program” for the reuse and recycling of old phones.

The seemingly casual decisions we make about purchasing, repairing and disposing of our electronics are one way we respond to God’s call to care for the earth. After all, all of life is religious. Encouraging (or perhaps even legislating) that more of our devices are repairable, upgradeable and recyclable will be one step towards more responsible technology.   

Author

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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