November 07, 2014

Recently my old laptop died. The keyboard stopped working; it would get burning hot, and then crash. So I thought, “Okay, it’s time to ditch it and get a new one.”
Odds are, you do this too. You throw out electronics at the first sign of trouble. Why? Well, often they aren’t warrantied. There aren’t many repair shops for electronics anymore. And they’re cheap. So, into the trash they go. But this produces a mountain of e-waste. We threw out over two and a half million tons of electronics last year, and we only recycled about a quarter of it.
Today’s electronics have many toxic components, so when we chuck them out, these wind up in our soil and water cycle. Or we ship them abroad, where they become a toxic hazard in Asia or Africa. We need a better way. We need a global movement that says, “Okay, we’re not gonna throw these things out anymore.”
We need a fixer movement.
I’m basing my idea here on the success of the maker movement. You may have heard of it. It’s a grassroots collection of geeks who’ve been rebooting their skills in handcrafting and building things. There are maker clubs all around the planet now where you can show up and learn how to build cool projects with other people.
We need the same thing for fixing. A worldwide, grassroots movement of people who get together – not to make things, but fix them. The exciting thing is, it’s already starting to happen. There are about a dozen fixer clubs in the U.S. and they’re pretty cool.
One night this year, I visited one of them where I live, here in Brooklyn. It was filled with neighbors bringing in all sorts of busted goods. There were laptops and mobile phones, but also old VCRs and lava lamps. And it was really collaborative. There were old-time mechanics working alongside twenty-something locals with tools all over the place.
And everyone told me it was transformational. When they watched their dead electronics come back to life, they stopped feeling like helpless consumers. They felt more self-sufficient.
Now, there are political tools that could make things even easier for fixers. Right now, most electronics aren’t made to be repaired. They’re often glued together, and the parts aren’t swappable. So we could pass laws requiring that products be created with replaceable parts, and we could offer big tax incentives to companies that do so.
This would be good, not just for society, but for all of us. After seeing all these energetic fixers, I got inspired. I pulled out that old busted laptop – with some help from online forums and YouTube videos. I deduced that I needed a new heat sink and a new keyboard. When the replacement parts arrived, I rolled up my sleeves and in only three hours – it was fixed. My five-year-old laptop was like new.
Best of all, it made me feel like I had super powers. I started off upgrading a machine and I wound up upgrading myself.
That’s what a fixer movement could do.

From a piece originally published in Wired Magazine: We Need a Fixer (Not Just a Maker) Movement.

commentary, Clive Thompson, Culture

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