Have you ever heard of the “right to repair?”

Currently there are 16 states including Nebraska, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Kansas, Wyoming, Illinois and Tennessee – that are considering bills that would allow consumers and third party repairers the legal right to purchase spare parts and access service manuals.

Such legislative movement is a lot more revolutionary than it sounds, because it’s not just about changing how the repair market works. It may potentially change the way how the right to “control” products is spread across a products’ life cycle.

We purchase and “own” many products – especially electronic ones – that use state-of-the-art technology. Even though we are the owners of those products, ultimately the manufacturers “control” them because they are the only ones who know how they are designed and function. We can do little beyond using them as directed by owners’ manual, and are left in the dark when they fail. So essentially, except for the small window of “use” phase, a product is entirely controlled by the producers – from the concept stage to R&D, manufacturing, repair and almost through disposal.

Conceptual product life cycle

But a Repair bill could change the name of the game.  Producers, who now enjoy the ownership of intellectual property of a product from cradle to grave, will be forced to concede some of their design secrets to product owners/repairers so that they can be empowered to repair failed products. If this happens, it could allow the owner of the products to become tinkerers, researchers, designers and developers…like this:

Obviously, the manufacturers such as Apple are fiercely against such legislation, which is totally understandable. Design secrets are what make them unique and  competitive. Why would they have to share their precious assets, risking their business?

But then, there are companies like iFixit, that are advocating getting back the “right to repair” to the users’ hands.  IFixit is an online repair knowledge base where anyone can share their tips to repair just about anything.

iFixit manifesto

Producers say they have the right to keep the secrets of what they developed. And user groups say they should have the right to fix what they legitimately own. Both arguments sound reasonable. But why are their arguments so divisive? When did it start?

Back in the old days, most daily items used to be “open source” because the mechanisms were reasonably simple and intuitive. People would reuse, repair, repurpose and recycle them freely, and many of them made it their job. The boundaries between the producers and users used to be much more ambiguous, and products transitioned from one stage to the next of the life cycle –forward and backward – more organically. Product owners and a variety of skilled repairers such as cobblers and clothes alterators were actively involved to make most of any product.

But the clear division emerged between producers and users/repairers as products became much more sophisticated leveraging advanced technology. Before they knew, users and repaired were excluded from the loop and left behind.

Why do we have to face such division between producers and users? It all boils down to the principles of modern economics, which put economic efficiency in front of everything else and encourage trade as a tool to promote such efficiency. A classic example: if one region’s climate is suitable for banana growing and the other for apples, economic theory would encourage banana region to grow bananas only, and apple country to grow apples so that both regions could access bananas and apples efficiently through trade. The efforts of apple growers in banana region and banana growers in apple country is considered “inefficient” and would eventually be wiped out of the market.

The same principles apply to the producer–consumer relationship, which tell producers to focus on production including R&D, design and manufacturing of products. Meanwhile, they also ask users to focus on “consumption,” the only activity left after producers dominated the creative process. Whereas you can skip all the efforts needed to make cool and functional devices by becoming a consumer, it also means that you are deprived of opportunities to participate in creation. If you are not in creative process, there is no way that you can be involved in repair process.

Whereas the decoupling of creation process from general public achieved significant economic efficiency and made our market full of appealing products, one thing is becoming obvious: being a full-time consumer was not as exciting and accomplishing as it looked before.

So here we are now, entrapped in the dilemma created by economic efficiency. Surrounded by many products that deliver fast and easy solutions, we lost our sense of purpose and mission. And we are starting to realize that we miss excitement of tinkering, designing, creating and building using our own brain and hands.

One of the people who stood up to reverse the trend of the ever-shrinking freedom left for independent tinkerers was Kyle Wiens, the co-founder of iFixit which offers thousands of repair manuals for electronic gadgets and other products. Repair is a natural gateway for users to trace back and learn about the creative breakthroughs and design that made your favorite products work.

The iFixit website says: “You bought it, you should own it. Period. You should have the right to use it, modify it, and repair it wherever, whenever, and however you want. Defend your right to fix.”

OK, but who should we be fighting against? Apple or Samsung, to make them agree to share some repair parts with us so that we can fix our iPhone and Galaxy? That could be a short-term target, but ultimately, it is not so much about manufacturers versus users. It’s rather about people versus economic efficiency, which keeps telling us that we don’t need to create or repair because we are inefficient. Fine, it’s true that I cannot develop an iPhone. But should it mean that I cannot seek opportunities to learn and use my creativity because it is not good? Should it mean that we should let efficiency take care of everything, sit back and wait for satisfaction and happiness to be delivered?

A story of a stay-home-mom, whose child accidentally flushed her iPhone into the plumbing has an answer. When she finally recovered the phone, she searched information on iFixit to see if she could make it work again. She found that it was just a tiny charging coil on the motherboard that went wrong during the toilet accident. When she knew it, it dawned to her that it was something she wanted to do: micro-soldering to repair electronic gadgets. As it turns out, repairing small parts on a motherboard requires delicate and meticulous operations like brain surgery, and most of such repair jobs are outsourced to other countries (again, because efficiency tells us to trade). So the mom decided to become an expert of micro-soldering, at her home in New York. She now runs a company to bringing back life to the phones that were pronounced dead by other professionals.

“There is of course the personal satisfaction in taking something that is a paperweight and returning it to life again,” the mom said. “That always is a drug-like, positive experience.”

Even though specialization of expertise and concentration of resources on producers’ side maximized collective affluence, it did not necessarily guarantee satisfaction and happiness felt by each of us. As a matter of fact, we often feel great and accomplished when engaged in inefficient activities. Sense of accomplishment cannot come from easy, convenient solutions.

The “right to repair” movement helps to remind us that we have so much more potential if not judged exclusively by efficiency.

We must be proudly inefficient.

The world of inefficiency is full of new discovery, sense of engagement and accomplishment. Find businesses and organizations that are leveraging “repair” to unleash our unexplored potential.