If anything teaches you about being able to do repairs, it’s going for long distance bicycle rides or using one for commuting. You end up refining a set of small but flexible tools that you can carry, and sometime, far from anything, you find yourself improvising.

Or there was a time I was camping alone and awoke to a flat tire in my (then) new to me old truck. I could not locate a lug wrench anywhere! I had not even done the thing you should do with a vehicle and practice doing a tire change. Luckily I had tossed in the back an almost random set of tools, and there was one multi pronged lug wrench that fit my wheel.

You don’t want to wish misfortune on anyone but dealing with these situations, on your own, is invaluable. In these cases there is no replace choice.

And maybe these examples are not a fit for where I hope to steer this post, but I’m dovetailing to it now from my recent jubilant experience of having repaired an old electric fireplace rather than buying a replacement. This is my reflection from reading The Right to Repair as the latest installment of the Middlebury College DLINQ Digital Detox. where the theme is looking at the impacts of technology on this planet we happen to inhabit.

Bob Cole writes in this installment about the choice or even the access to chose to repair broken/obsolete technology devices rather than replace with new.

This dilemma of paying someone to repair versus replacing a device is probably familiar to anyone who has reached a potential “end-of-life” crossroads for one of their many electronic devices. There are upsides and costs to each. Yet I wondered, are these my only choices? Are there alternative paths for a self-described tinkerer and occasional fixer? Could I source the parts, tools, and repair knowledge on my own? What might I learn along the way?

Heck yes, but I am not too clear on what “end-of-life” crossroads he refers to. Yes, some devices do just break where they just will not function, but:

  • I am writing this on a 2013 MacBookPro that still provides enough power and capability to do everything I want. Long ago, when I worked for a college that paid for my computers, I got new machines on something like a 2 year cycle. This current machine was one I had to pay for myself (as a freelance web geek). It is running a less than current OS (mojave) so I can still use the Aperture software I love for photos (software no longer supported but still functional).
  • And there is an older 2009 MacBookPro sitting in the other room, which is a bit more worn (it had a collision with a sidewalk) but still usable to play music through the stereo.
  • My DSLR, a Canon 7D, I got in 2012.
  • And if anything says keeping and using old stuff it’s my vehicle- a 1998 Ford F-150 I bought in 2010 with 88,000 miles on it (now up to 207,000).

I do this because I am a bit of a thrifty bugger, but I also feels strongly about using things as long as viable. I cannot say it’s a purely environmental mindset, it’s just who I am.

Yet Bob’s article cites a tendency for technology makers to keep you from doing this, whether you believe that devices are designed to go obsolete or if they are made in a way to defy being upgraded. On my older MacBooks, I have done hard drive swaps, replaced batteries and inserted memory upgrades, but these are not really possible anymore.

The IEEE Spectrum article Bob referenced, Why We Must Fight For The Right To Repair Our Electronics, suggest my hunches are wrong, that there might be a plot to make us think replace first when something breaks.

Unlike the 30-year-old mixer on your kitchen counter that refuses to die, new technology—especially the smart devices with fancy, embedded electronics—breaks more quickly. That trend, confirmed by a recent study by the German government, applies not just to delicate products like smartphones and tablets but also to equipment we would expect to last for a long time—like televisions, washing machines, and even tractors.


Speaking of broken technology, I could only read the intro to the article because they request I sign in to read it, and that bugs me. Yes it might be free, but why tease me?

Mobile phones are the ones that seem discarded the most and as Bob notes in the article, it takes some special tools and inside scoop to crack one open. I would be hesitant to do this, but I remember my colleague Tim Owens once doing a fix on an iPad.

And I remember a time I did some work in Vancouver and rented a room via Air BnB from a guy named Darcy. He had this great niche business- people who broke their mobile phone screen could contact him, he would buzz to their office on his bike, and had the tools and knowledge how to replace screens. And he had this side business, then called “Lumberback” where he would replace the back of your iPhone with a matching one made of real wood.

I had to get one just to watch him do his work. “Anything can be opened and fixed” he said.

Lovely Spalts Lumberback
Lovely Spalts Lumberback flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

And yes extend broken devices to broken technology. Can’t play old flash content? Try Ruffle. Mozilla hung up the great Thimble app? They gave a window to migrate it to Glitch. When Storify bit the dust and closed shop? Create an end around. This is the spirit of reclaiming your web experience, and it’s as much repair over discard.

I’ve not had much trouble location owners manuals for old devices, usually there are too many results. And you can find most any part on eBay and a whole list of other parts sites. Yes, YouTube is full of explainer videos of a wide range of usefulness, and it takes some patience to find not only the right one, but the one where the video maker is showing you something useful and not promoting their channel.

Bob hits a key point too with:

repairability provides a more sustainable response to the global challenge of electronic waste, with the added benefits of conserving natural resources, saving money, and building community.

https://dlinq.middcreate.net/detox-2022/post.html?id=23948 (emphasis added by me)

If you ever want to embrace the near infinite-ness of the internet, it’s when you end up diving down into some of school web forum of people fanatical about Ford F-150s (yes, I end up in one of many of these when I am researching an issue with mine). Outside of the glitz and scale of all the mainstream social media places is a generous long tail of small scale, and highly interest focused discussion spaces for almost any device you can name. You find all ranges of helpful, but yet sometimes argumentative (or worse) behavior, but I am rather fascinated by the social dynamics you can find in these fora (and if I was better at remembering and finding I would give you an example).

Now as a disclaimer I should slide up about 10 paragraphs, I am not overly skilled at all this fix it stuff. I cannot solder if my life depended on it. No welding, either. Many times, the answers I find are way beyond my skill level. But I enjoy the hunt for answers, and the rewarding feeling when I am able to pull through on a repair (saving the $ of replace). The reward of confidence is incalcuable.

My desire to repair over replace is not as firmly places in reducing my environmental impact. It’s more of an ethos of an attitude towards “things”, and that I am doing maybe a small part by just using stuff as long as possible (and then stashing them in a box or drawer because some day I might need a part).

Oh I also cheap 😉 so saving $ is good too.

If there is an environmental impact, that’s good too. It’s not only right to repair, or choice to repair, but also a reward of repair.

Thanks Middlebury DLINQ for running this series… And kudos to Tom Woodward for the signature style approach to the web site. I’ve seen his photos, he knows his way with repair tools too.

Featured Image:

Bike Repair Shop
Bike Repair Shop flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as @cogdog@cosocial.ca


  1. I feel like the desire to want to understand (and do) everything is a blessing and a curse. I cut out and replaced a huge section of ceiling drywall this weekend (after replacing the seal on a leaking 2nd-floor toilet). Now I will see if I can hide the edges. I have some nice-ish bookshelves I built that are 90% done (and have been that way for 6 months). Increasingly advanced car repairs are progressing. I badly want to know how to weld and solder. It may be I’m just bad at managing time.

    I do prefer the full quote– “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” and it may reflect on today’s society that we often only hear the first portion when it’s used.

    It does feel like companies are intentionally making repairing things yourself harder. I looked into what it’d take to replace the batteries on the Apple Air Pods and glue made it pretty near impossible. I see some similar patterns with various technologies (even some digital ones).

    Thanks for weighing in with this post and for always building in the open.

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