Fixers, or how cool it is to repair PCs and smartphones by yourself (from Milan to London)

Fixers, or how cool it is to repair PCs and smartphones by yourself (from Milan to London)

Unavailable manuals, spare parts sold by the weight of gold: the international movement of those who fix devices themselves is growing (and today, 17 October, is International Repair Day), just a few clicks. But there are also parties to socialize, pandemic permitting

Children repairing a PC at the Restart Party in Aosta (source: Sarah Burgay, from Facebook) "Better sure than throwing away, repairing", sang Lucio Battisti in the 70s . The brilliant friend, the one who "works miracles with a screwdriver in his hand", was the protagonist of a lucky piece. It is well known that the Lazio singer-songwriter was an ante litteram ecologist; but, from London to New York via Milan, a community of unsuspected people is expanding like wildfire: it is that of fixers, those who repair or - at most - resell their devices instead of sending them to landfills.

Websites, workshops and meeting opportunities for adepts and onlookers multiply: where the restrictions due to covid have made it impossible to meet in person, the appointment has moved to the web. Repairing, the organizers assure, means saving, is ecological and helps local technicians instead of big techs, accused of neglecting consumers and the environment with policies ranging from monocoque design to planned obsolescence. Here's why electronic DIY could get cool.

Restart Parties

“Frankly, what happens sometimes surprises me too”. In the past twenty years between printers and plotters, Fulvio Di Pietro has seen many. Generations of devices have passed from the laboratory of Lissone, in the Milanese area, of his Printercheck: needles, inkjet, laser, black and white or color, models from a few euros and professional systems for thousands. The domestic market, in recent years, had settled on disposable and it seemed impossible to go back. Instead, something has moved. "Customers ask for a quote, and when I tell them to be fair that the repair costs almost as much as the new product, they tell me: repair it anyway, I don't want to throw it away".

Until recently the landfill would be was the first option. "When I started, in 1998, we didn't hear about greens. But a printer cost at least three times the current price, and taking it to a service center certainly made sense ”. Together with the new millennium, a different era has begun: with the device sold at rock-bottom prices, the business has shifted to consumables (such as cartridges) and spare parts: either you repair it with us, whatever it takes, or you throw it away. br>
It is difficult to establish who triggered the mechanism; that is, whether it was the marketing offices that tamed the public by strategic choice by encouraging technological consumerism, or, instead, the companies responded to a phase of market expansion by proposing entry level product lines which, in the face of low costs, they did not guarantee reliability. "Beyond the differences between the various houses" - notes Di Pietro - "even within the same company the more expensive machines show a different build quality that leads them to suffer less from a series of problems related to use". Translated: they break less.

"Let's take smartphones: the entire life cycle of mobile phones sold in Europe causes 14 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. The average lifespan of a mobile phone in Europe is three years, and almost 211 million are sold in the area every 12 months ”. Speaking is Ugo Vallauri, an Italian who has lived in London for many years. Vallauri is an activist and founder of The Restart Project, through which he organizes collective repair events, where, between bolts and screwdrivers, the aspect of socialization is as interesting as the environmental one. Maybe you won't find the love of life, but it is possible to have a chat and feel useful.

“Extending the average life of cell phones by even just one year would save more than two million tons of emissions, equivalent to taking about a million cars off European roads ”, continues Vallauri, spreading data. "Over 70% of the environmental impact of a smartphone occurs before the phone has ever been turned on, during the production phase. Extending its life making it more repairable is the best way to reduce the effect ". The network set up by the Italian soon overtook the English Channel: if the restrictions linked to the covid moved the business online to the United Kingdom, during the summer something moved in the beautiful country, with events that touched Florence , Aosta and Perugia. At the tables, to explain the functioning of electronic devices and try to fix them, technicians and enthusiasts. Even children took part in Aosta, accompanied by parents interested in the topic.

"For some years people have been more sensitive, perhaps thanks to the attention that the media give to certain issues", confirms Di Pietro. “Of course, there are still many customers so the most important thing is to save. But the share of those who care - and it seems incredible - about waste management is increasing, and are willing to pay a little more in order not to pollute. We are not talking about large numbers, but in my experience it is quite significant ".

Planned obsolescence

The concept of planned obsolescence - the expiration date of electrical and electronic products - was coined in the United States in the 1920s or 1990s. Handkerchiefs, disposable razors and more: even light bulbs that burn out and washing machines that break, the activists suggest. During the Great Depression, planned obsolescence was seen as a panacea. Greater consumption would have meant an expansion of production, and therefore more work. The world at that time had not yet dealt with the increase in the global population, the rise in living standards and the scarcity of resources. Not to mention climate change, which, according to experts, threatens to wipe out entire regions of the globe, with the corollary of migration and pressure on borders. A reading that puts consumption at the heart of the problem, and that targets lifestyles and company policies.

The communities of fixers

The batteries of the first iPods, protagonists of the relaunch of Apple, they lasted about 300 charging cycles; in 2003, the discovery led director Casey Neistat to fill New York with protest graffiti and shoot a video that went viral, with millions of views within days. Result? Soon Apple, giving in to pressure, changed its policy. The power of the web: the first, embryonic, fixer community was born. There was still no organization, but it was a matter of a few months. The possibility of exchanging opinions, opinions and advice on repair offered by the Net meant that the first groups of non-specialists interested in the topic began to form rapidly.

Whoever found a way to open a device and fix it lived a almost carbonara emotion, similar to that of the nineteenth-century conspirators. In 2003 Ifixit was born, the first site to collect manuals and procedures for self-repairing one's own devices: wiring diagrams and instructions were often jealously guarded by the parent companies.

The elements of the story are all there. There is the common enemy - the big tech companies -, there is dissatisfaction, and there are the heroes, penniless young students who challenge Goliath armed with slingshot and screwdrivers.

Kyle Wiens and Luke Souls they were in college when, in the dormitory, they try to repair an old iBook. “We took it apart completely blindly,” he tells Wired Wiens, reached by phone in California. “The first time was a disaster, extremely difficult, even if, in the end, we succeeded. If nothing else, from the second onwards it started to be easier ”. The two in their twenties decide to start their own business by buying old broken PCs on eBay to get the spare parts needed for the repair. But, above all, they begin to share on the web a series of cards in which they describe in detail the procedures followed, allowing anyone to contribute. Today on Ifixit there are 30 thousand repair manuals and 95 thousand solutions for over 7,400 products, from mobile phones to televisions. The project, explains Wiens, supports itself by selling screwdrivers and basic repair kits.

Wiens has its own theory of planned obsolescence. "It exists, but it's not exactly what people think." Let's explain it better, we ask him. "I'll give you an example: if you remove the audio jack from a device, you are effectively making hundreds of millions of existing devices obsolete, and you are forcing users to move towards a technology that frankly isn't ready yet ... we don't have long-lasting wireless headphones yet. and sustainable. If you are the market leader, you know that sooner or later everyone will follow you: for this you have greater responsibility ”. Fortunately, there are brands that have a different policy: “Dell, Lenovo, HP make manuals and spare parts available; but even a Bosch drill is quite easy to repair, if your motor breaks down. ”

China back, Germany at the top

With hundreds of millions of page views per year, Ifixit has a global overview of the world of repairs. Who leads the ranking? Wiens continues: “I would say that Germany is the most culturally inclined country to roll up its sleeves. In general, however, we see interest all over the world. If I had to indicate who is left a step behind: I would say China, the upper middle class has very little interest in repairs. In India, Africa and Italy, however, there is far more interest ".

Our country, therefore, does not look bad. "In Italy we make five million unique page views a year [in Germany there are 12, ed] and there is a very active community that writes the guides and translates them: all on a voluntary basis".

The most clicked page on the tricolor version of the site concerns a problem with the iPhone 6: the audio from the upper speaker is no longer heard. No assistance center: it seems that to solve it was enough to pass over a dry toothbrush. The enthusiastic comments leave little doubt about the effectiveness of the procedure.

Repair Cafè, the Dutch answer

Ifixit, although very popular, is a virtual community: the Dutch answer to Vallauri and the its Restart Parties are the Repair Cafè. The focus is slightly different: here we are not limited to technology, the technicians help those who pass by the tables to fix everything, from the hairdryer to the watch, from the jewel to the too long trousers. There are currently 67 Repair Cafes: from France to Germany, from Australia to the United Kingdom to Canada, from Belgium to the USA. "63% of repairs on average are successful", write the managers in the latest report, dated 2019. A rate that drops to 53% for electronic products. Even for them, spare parts are missing. Repairing is fine, but better to be followed: according to the statistics collected, 77% of visitors did not independently search for information to fix broken objects, 15% did not find it, and only 7% managed to find and use it.

EU: from 2021 stringent rules on non-repairable products

With the environmental issue increasingly in the spotlight and China that has stopped accepting many types of waste since 2017, the Union Europea was forced to undertake long-delayed initiatives. Starting in 2021, a number of products (TVs, monitors, refrigerators, dishwashers, lighting) will have to meet minimum repairability requirements to be sold. “But that's not enough: the text essentially lacks all the electronic sector”, says Vallauri. Which raises with a proposal: “Why not equip the products with a repairability index? Today, the consumer knows nothing about it when he takes a device from the shelf: taking this dimension into account, his choice will be more aware ". It is easy to imagine that the idea will not appeal to many.

Some countries have tried to take a few steps forward independently: the Repair.eu site announces that in Austria the government coalition has agreed to lower the VAT on small repairs of bikes, clothes and shoes, bringing it from 20% to 10%, to make them more attractive. Moreover, in some landers in the country, the bonus that reimbursed 50% of the repair costs up to 100 euros would have been a success.

Unsuspected of the screwdriver

Today, October 17, falls International Repair Day, with events around the world. And the Open Repair Alliance is preparing a new standard for sharing and disseminating information and open repair data. But who really goes to these events, apart from the geek audience? “It's not just young nerds and retirees,” says Wiens from California. "The audience is getting bigger". Even to women. The standard-bearer is Jessa James, who in America founded a group of mothers with screwdrivers and holds themed courses, while in Aosta last month even children were involved in a very special Restart Party. The title of the event? A whole program: “Disassembling is a game”.

“This is not an exclusive club but open to everyone”, say the organizers. “Anyone wishing to set up a Restart Party in their city is more than welcome. Just contact us on our website and we will provide you with all the information to get started ”. The next scheduled event will be organized in Milan on December 4th. Pandemic permitting, of course.

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