We live in a world of planned obsolescence.
Not only are our devices designed to fail -- whether through cheap hardware, or through mandatory software upgrades that don't work on your old machine -- but they’re designed to stop you from saving them when they do. Bizarre seven-sided screws and cheap plastic clips hold our electronics together, wrapped inside seamless metal casings that can't be opened without severe damage.
We live in a world where corporations serve copyright takedown notices on people and websites that publish repair manuals, a world where stamping your company logo on a generic internal data cable makes it ‘proprietary’ and you can use your corporate might to get your friends at customs to seize a shipment, putting repair store owners out of business.
Every manufacturer does it, and they do it because they want to engineer a situation where you’ll be more likely to purchase a newer, more expensive model, and where they are the only option on the repair market if you don’t. It’s a win-win for everyone! Except you. And the environment. And for wage fairness in developing countries where our cheap devices are made. And... okay, yeah, it’s actually really only a win-win for the corporations! My mistake.
Enough ranting: I broke my Nexus 7 tablet. I still don’t understand how it happened, so don’t ask me, but I tried to use my thumb to turn the page on the book I was reading, and instead I looked down in horror as my thumb left a series of awful cracks across the screen in its wake. The fact that my weightlifting at the gym was clearly paying off in thumb-strength was small comfort as I stared at my now useless tablet.
But this did offer me another great opportunity: it was time to put my ranting to the test and see whether I could bring my tablet back to life.
One of the leading voices in the DIY device repair movement is iFixit, a California-based startup that has been butting heads with Apple and other major device manufacturers by not only supplying the tools and instructions needed to repair your own gear, but by actively lobbying politicians to enshrine the right of self-repair into law (with some notable successes).
Anybody reading this site will be familiar with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and how it's mostly used to take videos off YouTube and send grandmothers hilariously disproportionate fines for torrenting movies. It's also the same law that every tech giant (and even tractor companies like John Deere) uses to try and protect the insides of their devices, arguing that allowing you to access them will result in reverse engineering their proprietary secrets - and using them to commit nasty crimes!
(In the case of John Deere, their argument was that allowing you to repair your own tractor could, theoretically, let you access the mp3 player and pirate music -- through your tractor. Yes, this is what John Deere's lawyers think farmers do every day.)
iFixit has been trying to breach the walls of the DMCA fortress ever since its founders Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules started putting Apple repair manuals online for anybody to download. With my tablet screen now a nightmare of misfiring inputs, I reached out to iFixit and their online shop for the parts I needed. They sent me their Pro Tech Toolkit -- an amazing package brimming with spudgers and screwdrivers -- and with the aid of local Australian supplier MobileHQ, hooked me up with the replacement screen. Shipping from the US took a bit of time, but eventually everything was ready. I set up a table in the kitchen, spread out my tools, strapped on my anti-static wrist-strap, took a deep breath - and cracked open my tablet.
iFixit doesn't just sell parts and butt heads with tech giants. They and their community members offer full teardowns of nearly every device you can think of, along with step-by-step repair guides filled with commentary and input from thousands of people in the same situation as you. Some of those people are more cavalier than others (one particularly adventurous contributor suggested that the best way to separate adhesive from the Nexus screen was to put it "face down on top of a toaster oven" and give it "four or five toasts"), while others offer hints and tips on how to get through challenges you might not have expected.
The repair guide helpfully estimated about 40 - 45 minutes. I took 5 hours, most of which involved muttering the words "gently, gently" under my breath, followed by a string of frantic expletives. This was my first introduction to the incredibly fragile ZIF connector which holds all of the cables of your favourite phones and tablets together, and it's painfully easy to make a mistake when levering these little things up.
Everything was going smoothly -- if slowly -- as I took apart the tablet and set the pieces aside, gradually making my way to the frame that holds the LCD screen. As I worked I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that the very first device repair (outside of my PC) I had attempted would of course be the most involved one -- replacing the screen requires working your way through the entire tablet from back to front, disconnecting every component and undoing every screw to get at the cracks in the screen that are messing with your input.
It was when I got to the screen that the real problems began, and with the benefit of hindsight I wish I'd listened to the toaster oven evangelist. The LCD screen is glued to the frame with strong adhesive, and in the absence of a specialised 'heat gun' -- probably the only bit of gear that doesn't come in the Pro Toolkit -- I resorted to grabbing a hair dryer from the bathroom and blasting the frame at point blank range for several minutes at a time, before carefully and gingerly levering it away.
After picking the first of the glass shards out of my fingers, I came up with a tip of my own: cover the entire cracked screen in masking tape so that none of the black splinters from hell can escape. This was easily the most frustrating part of the process, and probably took up most of the time. No matter how I tried, the glue would not melt completely away, and the old screen -- which I had hoped to salvage safely in one piece -- ended up a mess of various shards in the trash.
Installing the new screen and following the guide in reverse to re-assemble the whole thing was straightforward, and I whooped audibly when the Nexus turned on successfully and booted up. Few things are as satisfying as seeing something you fixed with your own hands lurch happily into its new life, and I was finally able to return to the book I was reading when it broke -- which, in a turn of delightful irony, was Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty's biting critique of late-stage capitalism.
What none of the guides tell you is that, in a world of DMCA lawsuits and seamless metal cases, fiddling with your device (at least for the first time) feels like some kind of very minor crime, and it's hard to shake the sense that large tech giants deliberately cultivate this fear. Peeling back protective stickers that say 'warranty void if removed', carefully picking away at foil and glue to turn the pristine mechanical beauty into a pile of crumpled strips -- it all feels strangely blasphemous.
But perhaps that's for the best. Perhaps everybody should get inside the guts of their sacred black rectangle and see what makes them tick, and know how to put them back together again. Is there any greater assertion of consumer rights than manually exerting absolute control over the life and death of your product? Is there any greater way to give the finger to a tech giant than by knowing exactly which component is broken and needs to be replaced, and by replacing it with a generic version of the same component for one tenth of the price?
I love fixing things. I love to pull apart and tinker and fiddle, and wonder why all the bits work the way they do. I love to dust and clean and tweak and unscrew and put back together and press the power button, and frown when nothing happens, and start again. But perhaps I love it too much, because when my new screen started to flicker a few weeks later, I took it apart again, and overzealously applied too much pressure to what I thought was a loose motherboard ribbon cable. Now that cable is bent at a horrible right angle, and my tablet will no longer even boot up.
It turns out that replacing that particular cable, for a device made in 2013, is frustratingly hard. Very few places sell them anymore even though it's only three years old, and the only ones available are being re-sold on eBay by private sellers, scavenged from other devices. Even iFixit is out of stock.
So for now my tablet is out of action again, and even though I'll probably get it back up and running sooner or later, there's only so long that the components I need will continue to be available, because the demand for making them just isn't there.
Ultimately, it's up to people like us to create that demand, to create a thriving after-market that democratises our devices and keeps them more accessible and more open than corporations like Apple, Samsung, Google, and even John Deere want them to be. So get yourself a seven-sided screwdriver, and start building the revolution by hand -- just don't forget to carefully read the guide on the way through.
Thanks to iFixit and MobileHQ for their help with supplying the products for this article.