Geo: Geography and Environment

Planet of the fixers?

By Josh Lepawsky, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Maintenance and repair are on the agenda. In October 2018, The Economist declared repair to be, “as important as innovation” and went so far as to proclaim, “in a disposable society, to repair is to rebel”. A year later, the Open Repair Alliance—a group of European and US based organisations—marked the third International Repair Day. The event united hundreds of community groups to “shout about the importance of repair and the growing global community repair movement” and to “focus on the need to repair for the climate and for the future”.

Legislators are taking note. In 2019 the EU adopted rules mandating manufacturers to design longer lasting, more repairable devices and to make spare parts available for up to a decade. So far, Europe’s rules don’t cover every device on the market—televisions are in, but other electronic devices like phones and computers aren’t… yet. Meanwhile, in the US, nearly 30 states have considered right-to-repair legislation that would cover consumer electronics (although none have passed yet). A notable shift in the regulatory landscape of two of the wealthiest markets on the planet appears to be underway with respect to maintenance and repair.

Despite the importance of maintenance and repair, they are notoriously difficult to track. GDP measures and other macroeconomic metrics typically ignore these activities. Some jurisdictions collect statistics on repair employment, but the numbers often collect together broad sectors of the economy while differing definitions make cross-jurisdictional comparisons tricky. Meanwhile, grassroots efforts such as Repair Café, The Restart Project and The Open Repair Alliance map community repair events around the world, but data standardization remains a challenge.

How might the activity of independent and do it yourself device maintenance and repair be traced? And, if it can be traced, how is that activity distributed around the planet? In a recent paper published in GEO: Geography and Environment, I use data about the locations and numbers of people accessing free, online repair manuals to map the planetary distribution of these fixers. These data were made available to me for research by iFixit, a US-based organization that develops the free manuals, sells tools and components, and engages in technical education and policy advocacy (including right-to-repair). What the data suggest is that millions of people around the world engage in independent and do-it-yourself information and communication technology maintenance and repair, or what I call INDIY ICT M&R.

A Planet of Fixers? Link to map and data.

When mapping the data, something surprising emerged: neither internet access rates nor underlying population were good predictors of the number of users of these manuals found in locations around the world. This is a valuable insight in its own right. Yet, even more important, is how the data challenge prevailing understandings of places both in ‘the core’ and on what Graham et al. (2015, p. 88) call “global information peripheries”. All too often the latter are only made visible in Euro-American media as sites where ‘the West’s’ electronics ‘go to die’. The data mapped in my recent paper show that such places are also hubs of creative, technically sophisticated recuperative work of INDIY ICT M&R. The data also indicate that millions of people in Europe and North America are similarly engaged in INDIY ICT M&R activity suggesting a need to think differently about these regions as only ever sources of e-waste dumped outside their borders.

The depiction of a ‘planet of fixers’ mapped in the paper may offer a charismatic image of certain moral ‘goods’ and bolster broader hopes associating INDIY ICT M&R with notions of ‘planetary repair’. Yet, those who do find the image compelling should be mindful of certain risks that inhere in it. For example, the image of a planet of fixers may bolster assumptions about what actual economic, social, and environmental ‘goods’ are being served by INDIY ICT M&R.

Are millions of people around the world doing INDIY ICT M&R a reason to be hopeful about fixing’s role in ecological conservation? Maybe. Several million people distributed around the world could indicate a significant amount of maintenance and repair activity and co-benefits like conservation of materials and energy, local self-employment, and greater self-reliance among other possibilities. At the same time, all this activity doesn’t necessarily or automatically scale up to aggregate conservation of raw materials or preservation of ecosystems. It may be that such scaling up is indeed accomplished, but such scaling requires substantial research, as yet undone, to evidence. Further work is needed to critically investigate the notion of a planet of fixers for its limits and possibilities as an affective vision of hope or crisis.

The ubiquitous but highly uneven distributions of INDIY ICT M&R activity indicated by the data mapped in my paper point to a variety of future research directions. For example, what sort of job prospects does the sector offer, for whom, where, and under what conditions? How are supply- and customer-networks organized and whom do they serve? To what degree do ICT M&R activities offer genuine material and energy conservation gains and what of the discards that inevitably arise from this sector? More broadly, the results suggest fruitful directions for deeper analysis and research into both pragmatic questions about ICT maintenance and repair (such as their social, economic and environmental significance), as well as more speculative questions about how and why the fates of ICT within and between production, use, and discard stand in for dreams of technological futurity and nightmares of social and environmental breakdown.

About the Author: Josh Lepawsky is Professor of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He researches the geographies of discards as well as those of maintenance and repair, as well as ‘fair’ or ‘ethical’ trade in rubbish electronics and recycling Twitter: @rubbishmaker

This article is based on the Open Access paper: Lepawsky J. (2020). Planet of fixers? Mapping the middle grounds of independent and do‐it yourself information and communication technology maintenance and repair. Geo: Geography and Environment.

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