When California Polytechnic State University student Kyle Wiens dropped his Apple iBook G3 and the operating system slowed to a crawl, he decided to fix it. Coming from a long line of tinkerers, Wiens was confident he could do it. But when he searched the internet for the laptop’s manual, he came up empty handed.
“I looked for the manual online and couldn’t find it. In fact, I could find very little on how to do it myself. Eventually, I fixed it, but it was a lot harder than it needed to be,” recalled Wiens.
Wiens thought it wasn’t right that Apple didn’t have any information on how to repair their products.
He came away from the experience convinced that repair manuals should be free and accessible to everyone. Thus iFixit, a site dedicated to making home repair possible, was born. The site now boasts almost 30,000 free repair manuals and it’s evolved into a movement pitting consumers against manufacturer copyright laws in a fight for the right to repair. Companies claim that releasing repair manuals violates copyright laws, but repair advocates like Wiens believe ownership passes to the consumer upon purchase.
“Repairing is environmentally friendly, economical and fun,” says Wiens, “Companies want to use copyright law or even planned obsolescence – that is, engineer their products to give out after a certain number of years – but consumers should have the right to decide to repair their purchases, rather than re-buy.”
Every third Wednesday in Manhattan, the Fixers’ Collective exercises their right to repair. Hosted by Hack Manhattan, the group invites members of the public to bring their broken appliances and electronics in for a free fix. Composed of amateur tinkerers as well as professional engineers, the room at Hack Manhattan buzzes with energy as members peel back the outer shells on items like a broken coffee maker, a laptop that isn’t holding a charge, and a 1980s drum machine picked up at a flea market.
Tarek Omar, a hacker who runs a pop-up repair and refurbish shop in flea markets, tinkers with the circuit board on the drum machine. Its owner, Nico DePierro, an electronic music artist, likes to fix things, too.
“The more time I spend with an object the more connected I feel to it,” DePierro says. “I can easily get a functional one of these [drum machines] from eBay for ten bucks, but this is better.”
Omar, meanwhile, suggests that DePierro replace the power source with a new one that will enable the device to connect to a USB port. He likes to refurbish objects with new uses as well as repair them.
Companies like Apple, Toshiba and John Deere, however, often make it difficult, if not illegal, to repair and refurbish their products. Under current copyright laws and licensing agreements, they have a case, “If you read the fine print,” Omar says, “You’ll find that it’s illegal. It’s illegal to open something up and figure out how it works. It’s considered their property.”
Manufacturers argue that the workings of their products are “trade secrets,” but Gay Gordon-Byrne, a repair advocate leading the charge on the Right to Repair Act, thinks they just want a monopoly on aftermarket repairs.
“Apple was willing to let us pass Right to Repair legislation as long as they could claim their glass as proprietary,” she says. The glass! Well, it turns out, they make about a billion a year replacing broken screens.”
The Right to Repair Act, up for consideration in 12 states, would require manufacturers to provide owners and private businesses with fair access to service information, security updates and replacement parts, is up for consideration in 12 different states. The State of New York stands to be the first state to pass the Right to Repair Act A8192 and S618, sponsored by Joseph D. Morelle and Phil Boyle, respectively.
A leading supporter of the bill, Wiens sees massive repercussions for consumers and small businesses should it fail to pass, “If Right to Repair doesn’t pass, Apple could have the power to shut down independently owned cell phone repair shops, even shoe repair shops could be impacted – repair touches everything!”
As smart appliances infiltrate homes, the need to update standing copyright laws is even more urgent. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, breaking protection over a device’s programming is a breach of copyright. The law was created to prevent copying of DVD’s, but manufacturers now use it to claim proprietary rights over the software that comes with thermostats, tractors, and even baby monitors.
Lyle Gore, a member of the Board of Directors for UNEDA – an alliance for network equipment dealers, explains, “Imagine if you sell a house with a smart refrigerator in it to new owners. Now they own the refrigerator. But the manufacturer says they have to re-buy the license to the software in that refrigerator.”
That’s why the law firm Jochum, Shore, and Trossevin created the YODA bill, or the You Own Devices Act. It’s modest legislation that would amend the DMC Act to transfer proprietary rights to device software to the owners of the device.
It might not seem like much, but both YODA and the Right to Repair Act have profound implications for consumers, companies, the environment and our culture. Without the Right to Repair, consumers and companies face the prospect of replacing electronics and appliances every few years. According to the iFixit site, Americans alone generate 3.4 million tons of e-waste per year. Meanwhile, millions of people go without access to technology like smartphones. A repair movement could reduce waste, provide people with low-cost access to repaired electronics, and create jobs in developing countries.
Finally, fixing just feels good. As Rabbi Daniel Klein of the Fixers’ Collective quipped, “My mother taught me to tinker. Why replace something when you can open it up, look inside and find out how it works?”
A few weeks into training for the New York City marathon, Jasper Nathaniel had an epiphany. There was no nutrition company for the modern fitness consumer. Less than a year later, Nathaniel left his tech job to turn his idea into a reality.
Mystics and artists once were alone in experiencing epiphanies. But today, entrepreneurs increasingly seek them and we’re starting to learn how they really work. But as human creativity becomes a commodity, do we risk losing what made that “a-ha moment” so valuable in the first place?
Although the term has been around since ancient Greece, human beings have only recently started trying to quantify epiphanies. In Silicon Valley, epiphanies are the new currency. Idea-hungry entrepreneurs are eager to capitalize on them.
“Epiphany” comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” meaning “appearance” or “manifestation” of the gods. It’s traditionally been used in religious contexts to describe a holy vision. In Christian tradition, the epiphany marks the passage of the three wise men traveling to baby Jesus. William Wordsworth, James Joyce and John Updike apply the concept of the epiphany to the secular realm of the artist. The writers define it as a moment of deep, transformative insight.
The concept of epiphany has reached entrepreneurs. Moguls sprinkle new age words and phrases into their business practical language. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recalls observing Italian coffee culture and realizing coffee was about more than just a beverage. The moment, he says, “was an epiphany.” Similar stories among entrepreneurs abound – Ben Silberman of Pinterest, Sara Blankly of SPANX, and many more all claim an epiphanic moment as the foundation of their success.
Scientists started studying the epiphany in the 1990s while the the dot com boom that laid the foundation for today’s tech-centric economy was underway. During that time, cognitive scientists John Kounis and Mark Beeman began to study what happens in the brain when the “aha moment” happens. Paradoxically, the pair found that epiphanies didn’t involve “seeing the light,” but instead were moments where the brain seems to blink. Instead of seeing a new vision, the brain shuts down its visual processing center and turns inward.
In order for a brain blink to give way to an epiphany, the person must either have high visual receptivity or be in a state which induces such receptivity. Jasper Nathaniel, for example, had just come in from a long outdoor run where he was exposed to the visual stimulation of passing scenery. He again confronted the problem of an intimidating sports nutrition marketplace full of supplements and recovery drinks containing obscure, hard-to-pronounce ingredients rather than real foods. This time a lightbulb went on: Why not fill the gap in the market himself? A few months later, Nathaniel and two colleagues founded Revere, a direct-to-consumer health startup on a mission to demystify and simplify the category through personalized, plant based sports nutrition.
Nathaniel’s epiphany-as-company-origin story is par for the course in the startup world. As such, the epiphany has moved from a deeply personal transformative experience to a commodity that can be manufactured and sold. Tech conferences and news sites are rife with information on how to optimize your body for idea generation (get a good night’s sleep, be in a positive mood, exercise). Even Columbia Business School teaches a class on generating epiphanies: William R. Duggan’s “Napoleon’s Glance” aims to teach students how to generate quick epiphanies as they conduct business strategy.
Scientists are scrutinizing epiphanies and studying their details. They hope to transform an unpredictable and unknowable experience into a step-by-step DIY project. Neuroeconomist Ian Krajbich at Ohio University investigates the mechanisms behind decision making. Recently, he and colleague James Wei Chen published results from a study on epiphany learning. Rather than one, big life-changing idea, epiphany learning tackles what happens when we go from not-knowing to knowing, as in the case of solving a puzzle. The study revealed that certain participants were more attuned to epiphany learning than others.
Unlocking the formula for big ideas could offer enormous gains in human potential. But there’s risk. If we only consider people as idea generators, we lose track of what makes them people. We are asking them to function like machines, in the same way that industrial revolution-era assembly line workers were tasked to function. Those workers had few protections and were treated little better than the machines they operated. The dehumanizing conditions gave rise to the labor movement, which brought the modern 9-to-5 work week, worker health and disability benefits and retirement plans.
The modern nature of work has moved away from manufacturing. The 9-to-5 rules no longer apply, but workers still need protections. Epiphanies require rest, good health, and a positive mood. Creative workers can’t be expected to efficiently produce good ideas without the benefits of health care, breaks from work, and economic stability. We may now know that the epiphany is an essentially human phenomenon – and in order for epiphanies to continue to drive our economy, we must meet the human needs of the workers behind them.
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