Repair Worlds and a World to Repair

So to kick off… There’s a ongoing transformation in consumer products that has long bugged me and that seems to be expanding into broader concerns of ecology, history, our own capacities to think with things and to remake them, and ourselves. Increasingly, we don’t own the stuff we buy, at least not in the way we have traditionally conceived of ownership. Products come locked down with proprietary components (e.g. the obscure screw types inside a Macbook), maintenance systems (e.g. John Deere tractors or many car models that can only get checked up and fixed at authorized company locations), or subscription models (e.g. Microsoft Office 365 or Adobe Creative Cloud). Or think about how it no longer makes sense to give a CD as a gift because MP3s and streaming services have transformed our relationship to music as commodity. Licensing (“terms and conditions”) has effectively come to replace a previously dominant convention in the selling and buying of commodities (“you bought it, do whatever you want with it.”).

This transition perhaps says something more general about the condition of late capitalism, but it also has generated new communities of practice such as DIY groups, hackers, maker cultures, and tinkerers of all kinds. New consumer politics have emerged too, as with the growing Right to Repair movement lobbying for legislation to protect the right to access, modify, and care for the products people have in their possession. This politics comes tied to an ecological and anti-corporate ethics against excess waste and planned obsolescence. There is also a claim to knowledge and the spirit of design openness here as well: the notion that people want to roll up their sleeves and learn how things work from the inside, how to retroengineer them, adapt them for unintended uses, and personalize and beautify them to one’s own liking.

We ought not ignore that all of this arrives on the scene at the same historical moment as other calls for reparability: a global reckoning with racial injustice, and a strain of environmental politics that demands we repair our damaged world. Are there confluences here among these repair worlds? How might we think about reparations for slavery and abolitionist politics in the same frame as discontented tinkerers and repairfolks? What might decolonizing design and the politics of repatriation have to do with all of this? What ecologies of repair can be jerry-rigged and patched together with more-than-human worlds? What is made anew, what otherwise is made possible with the gesture to repair?

I’m excited to see what may coalesce in this thread around these questions, thinking about repair in its myriad and active senses. I’ll keep adding ideas and stories here that come to mind, and I hope to open new conversations with many of you.


that’s a fantastic post Ale. Many things come to mind: (1) not traditionally owning things is the hallmark of our platform economy. Capital owns the infrastructure of use, we just rent songs, rides, the movement of a tractor. (2) Scale: what is the difference between repairing a bike and repairing a historical injustice? (3) What are the histories of these repair cultures? The Whole Earth Catalogue, for instance, bore many of the same ethics you’ve described, but ultimatley fed into the same California Ideology of techo-solutionism that gave us the platforms. The Californian Ideology - Wikipedia


On COVID-19 and the right to repair movement:

This is all so important. And what you say about repair, and reparation, in particular, has me thinking. There is the right to repair, and the right to have repaired. I enjoy tinkering with things that have broken down in small ways, but I also wonder then whether movements for the right to repair zero in too quickly on what individuals are able to do on their own? Who or what is responsible for repair, especially when you think at the collective scale of injustices that demand reparation? Maybe in the same way that life cycle design principles ask companies to be responsible for the end use of their commodities, a repair world is one in which a producer would rightly be expected to repair what breaks down? What conditions would have to be in place for something like that to be possible?

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It’s not really practical to expect producers to repair, since many products are made a long distance from their use. Mainly we should require that their works be durable, repairable with standard tools, and that instruction manuals should be easily available. Volkswagen Beetles were famously repairable with simple household tools. I don’t agree that the transition to renting has created DIY groups – there have always been DIY groups. Youtube is a great countervailing force that allows repair communities to spontaneously organize: to identify which Apple products are the best for upcycling, for example. There are two imperatives - reuse and repair devices instead of recycling them, upcycling their operation to greater durability (sustainability) where possible and adopt new devices where their use supports greater sustainability. The new ARM based Macs are an example of the latter.

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