Kyle Wiens is the co-founder of iFixit – an online repair community that sci-fi author Cory Doctorow once described as “the new Justice League of America”. (Wiens, apparently, is its Superman.)
He’s bringing his e-waste crusade to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide this March (details below). To celebrate, we caught up with Wiens to find out what he’s all about, and how hard it is to fix a slinky.
So tell us, what is iFixit?
It’s the free repair manual for everything – kind of like the Wikipedia for fixing things.
What inspired you to create iFixit?
The idea came about when I was trying to fix my laptop. I was having a hard time because Apple wasn’t sharing repair information. I got frustrated with that, so some friends and me decided to write our own repair manual and share it with the world.
It’s grown a lot since we first started; we’re now a community of millions of fixers, with thousands of repair manuals up on the site. And that information is absolutely free to anybody who needs it.
Is the project just about saving money, or is there a grander ambition behind it all?
The idea was that if we had free repair information, people would fix more. And fixing things is a good thing. The environmental impact of modern products is huge; manufacturing products requires vast amounts of resources, and things just don’t last near as long as they used to.
We’re trying to reverse that trend by making things as easy to fix as possible, with the idea that maybe instead of using a mobile phone for 18 months, it might stay functional for five, six or seven years.
What kinds of things do people most commonly need help fixing?
iPhone and Galaxy screens and batteries, usually. People don’t know that you can swap a battery in a modern phone, and you absolutely can; in fact, it’s pretty darn easy. But we also have repair manuals for cars and bicycles, and all kinds of other stuff.
Is there anything you haven’t yet been able to crack?
The slinky. If anyone knows how to fix a slinky, we would love advice.
What’s the process behind reverse engineering a repair manual for something like an iPhone?
The tricky part is always taking something apart the first time; you never start off knowing how to get inside something without breaking it. It’s trial and error, and requires a lot of organisation and attention to detail.
A lot of time is just spent keeping track of screws; you might have two screws that look the same, but one will be half a millimetre longer. It’s really important to get them back in the right slot. Then we distil all that down into the repair manual – a step-by-step guide – so you don’t have to go through that process.
iFixit has been hugely successful. What does that say about our (supposed) consumer culture?
Clearly there are a lot of people who are interested in repairing things. This makes sense: the average American has 28 gizmos, and we don’t want to replace all 28 every year. We like to say that you can save the planet through shear laziness – often times, it’s easier to fix things than go out and replace them. Just hang on to the things you already have.
Repairing something is also more rewarding than buying something new. There’s a certain pride that people take in their repairs. When you repair something, you develop a relationship with it. It becomes more personal to you than it was before because you’re responsible for it. You become more of an owner than a user.
How many technical skills do you need to repair the average gadget?
Not that many; it has more to do with being careful and taking your time. We often find that small children – young girls in particular – are better at fixing things than adults. They’re more patient, they’re willing to take the time, they don’t rip cables out. As long as you follow the guides, you don’t need any skills.
Will this kind of repair work always remain on the hacker fringe?
I actually think it’s pretty darn mainstream. We’ve got kids fixing iPods for their parents, mum’s fixing iPhones for their kids. We don’t really see our community as being very much on the fringe. In fact, our folks are often from rural areas where they have to support themselves.
You’re coming to Australia in 2017. What can people expect from your talk?
I’m going to talk about how imperative it is that we learn to care more for our things. We’ve forgotten what’s inside things. Product marketers and designers have brainwashed us into thinking that your phone’s a shiny box and that there’s nothing inside. It’s important to connect us with the materials inside these things.
I’ll also talk about some of the crazy things we’ve seen on the way. It’s been an interesting journey, teaching millions of people to fix things. Most of the time it goes well; some times it fails in interesting ways. And I’ll bring something we can take apart while I’m there, too.
Events: Kyle Wiens will appear at the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women festival in Sydney on 5 March, the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on 9 March, and WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks in Adelaide on from 10–13 March.