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

Currently there are eight states – 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 how the right to “control” products is spread across a products’ life cycle.

Since we are surrounded by products and gadgets that use state-of-the-art technology, we often don’t have a clue as to how they work.  Even though we’ve purchased them and own them, they are virtually a black box to us.  Only manufacturers know the mechanics, therefore they “control” them. We can do little beyond using them, as directed by owners’ manual.  Especially when they fail, we are left in the dark.

Except for the small window of “use” phase, a product is 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 ownership of intellectual property of a product from cradle to grave, will be forced to concede some of its design secrets to product owners/repairers so that they can be empowered to repair the failed products.  If this happens, it could allow the owner of the products to become tinkerers, researchers, designers and developers again…like this:

That’s the reason why manufacturers such as Apple are fiercely against such legislation. And it’s understandable. Design secrets are what they are all about. Why would they have to share what makes their business viable?

But then, there is a company like iFixit, that is adamantly 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.  Indeed, back in the old days, reuse, repair, repurpose and recycle…whole bunch of downstream activities after use phase were pretty open to everyone.  Any product was “open-source,” because the mechanics were simple and intuitive.

The boundaries between the producers and users used to be much more ambiguous, and products transitioned from one stage of the product life cycle to the next –forward and backward – more organically.  And skilled workers such as cobblers and clothes alterators would help such processes. But not anymore. Products are much more sophisticated lately.  Users are left behind and skilled repairers have almost disappeared. How did this happen?

It all boils down to the principles of modern economics, which put economic efficiency in front of everything else and encourages trade as a tool to promote such efficiency.

A classic example:  if one region’s climate is good to grow bananas and the other for apples, economic theory would declare: “go ahead and trade.” Economics encourages banana country to focus on growing bananas, and apple country to grow apples, and then the two countries engage in trade.  When trade occurs, both countries would make some profits. That money can be used for banana country to buy apples, and apply country to buy bananas. This would be the most cost effective scenario and the right answer, in light of economics principles.  The efforts for banana country to grow apples would be considered “inefficient,” and would eventually be wiped out of the market.

Applying the same theory to the producer–consumer relationship: producers are encouraged to focus on “production,” which includes R&D, design and manufacturing of products. Even when the products are something users use everyday, the process of tinkering, creating and operationalizing to make products is concentrated in the producers’ hands – who overwhelm others in capacity and power to attract talents and expertise, as well as a large amount of financial investments. And the “right to repair” went to the producers, along with other creative processes.

Users ended up being excluded from the entire production process, and became labelled “consumers.”  Whereas being a consumer means you can enjoy various types of products and services with no efforts or sweating, it also means that you are deprived of opportunities to participate in any process to create products.  It’s almost like you are declared: “you are only good at consuming. Do nothing else, just consume.”  If you are excluded from the process of creation, then there is no way you could know anything about how to repair.

So, a complete decoupling of creation/production from users occurred: there is a group of smart people – winners of fierce competitions – who are capable of accelerating production efficiency, left and right, to deliver cool products. And there is another group of people, labelled consumers, who sit back and wait for those products to be delivered.  Users inadvertently traded their ability to “create” with the status to “consume,” and haphazardly became a full-time consumer. Creation is now concentrated on the producers’ end.  And this is how economic efficiency and trade works. The gist of trade is specialization and concentration.

Up until recently, we never really doubted there might be a problem in the modern economy and its underlying tenets.  We thought it would make our society more affluent and make us more satisfied and happier.

But now, here we are, fighting for the “right to repair,” rather than just sitting back and consuming. What does that mean?

It means that economic principles are not flawless.  They are especially ignorant in understanding peoples’ happiness: they simply assume that the way people feel satisfaction and happiness is correlated to efficiency or affluence brought about by efficiency, therefore we could maximize happiness by maximizing efficiency.

But many of us are realizing that efficiency is not making us that happy. Specialization and concentration are not making us happy.

We are feeling that “I” want to do it, and “I” have to do it and fix it, in order to feel truly happy and proud. Even when someone else could offer more cost-effective solutions, it doesn’t help. It’s the sense of accomplishment that really makes us feel happy and proud, not the acquisition of “stuff.”

When you are a proud and dedicated apple producer living in banana country, you are willing to take challenges of growing apples in a difficult environment.  When you are an enthusiastic user, it’s totally okay for you to spend time and energy, tweaking, modifying and repairing your own products.  You don’t need an easy, ready-made solution.

But an efficiency-driven market does not make room for apple growers in banana country. They are forced to struggle in competitive markets filled with cheaper apples. By the same token, manufacturers have to maximize their profits in order to survive, by maintaining their secret recipes for success. Users are denied access to those recipes, deprived of the joy of tinkering and creation.

So here we are now, entrapped in the dilemma created by economic efficiency. We are submerged in the easiness and hassle-freeness of today’s market filled with a plethora of things, starting to suffocate in an increasingly narrow space left for us as an independent producer, creator – any type of value adder virtually- to feel proud, accomplished and happy.

And one of the people who stood up to reverse the trend of the ever-shrinking freedom left for independent tinkerers was Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit, which offers thousands of repair manuals for electronic gadgets and other products.

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.”

For Weins, product ownership meant full understanding, full control and full access to the product. But he stumbled upon a big hurdle – specialization and monopolization of knowledge and expertise, which was promoted by economic efficiency.  So much so that the excitement of creation has been stripped away from users, and the “right to fix” is something we have to stand up and defend, Weins reminds us.

OK, but who should I be fighting against? Apple? So that they’d eventually agree to share some design information with users and repairers?

A step further, it’s important to look at it in a bigger picture, because manufacturers are also entrapped in the same efficiency game we are in.  We really need to review what economic efficiency has been doing to us.

When efficiency-driven markets find more efficient regions or companies outside your territory, don’t they strip away local jobs? Doesn’t that suppress small, independent business owners?  Doesn’t it label tradition and heritage “inefficient” and “incompetent,” and replace them with mass-produced, homogeneous products and services?

Doesn’t it indirectly call you an inefficient and incompetent workforce, by simply denying your job application?

What if the best part about you cannot be summarized in a highly formatted, 1-page resume?  What if your community is losing the last skilled cobbler because it’s cheaper to buy a new pair of shoes? Do you want to fight against such a trend?

And the answer is increasingly YES. There are various movements and efforts around the world that try to defy our destiny to be swallowed by economic efficiency, to re-discover our own values, abilities, power and pride.

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.