My dad liked to think he was a techie. He bought new gadgets all the time; getting them to work was another story. So, I played the role destined for every millennial teenager: in-house tech support. I used to get furious calls from my father when he couldn’t get the TV to work, or the Wi-Fi went out, or the video phone technology in which he invested in 2008 (yes, I tried to tell him about Skype) wasn’t doing what he wanted it to. After a string of choice expletives, his tone would shift to one of defeat as he muttered, “They just don’t make things like they used to.”
Much to my teenage-self’s chagrin, older me has realized that my dad was right (well, at least about the not making things like they used to bit). This problem has turned out bigger than I thought.
Products are designed to be unrepairable. Companies lock users out of the devices that they own. Consumers are learning that they have to start paying for a subscription after they have bought a product and started using it.
These issues are symptoms of three larger problems:
Manufacturers of consumer technology products see repair as a barrier to future profits. The longer we use a device, the fewer devices they sell.
Because nearly everything we own now has digital components — including refrigerators, running shoes and even toothbrushes — the clear line of ownership has blurred. You may own the hardware, but according to the product manufacturer, the software that makes your product run belongs to them. That means they can remove the utility of your item by taking away your right to use the software. The old saying “possession is nine-tenths of the law” turns out to be as obsolete as your corded home phone.
With more control of how users interact with the things they “own”, more control over the useful life of a product and more control over a user’s ability to fix their stuff, manufacturers are designing things to be replaced every couple of years. The average American household has 24 pieces of digital technology in it — 24 pieces of tech that are destined for the scrap pile when the newer versions come out.
That’s a lot of junk.
As an advocate on U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign, it’s my job to fight for our right to fix the stuff we own. I want to extend the lifespan of our products, keeping them out of the landfill and keeping money in consumers’ pockets.
So when my team caught wind of Sonos’s since-cancelled plan to “brick” older devices by forcing them into an inoperable “Recycle Mode”, preventing consumers from continuing to use the speaker that they paid for and removing their ability to sell it to a secondary user, our spidey senses started tingling.
The Sonos debacle is an ominous sign of things to come. The first wave of internet-connected gadgets is aging, and manufacturers are reevaluating cybersecurity risks and profit margins.
We should empower reuse and repair to cut waste. That means standing up when companies decide to “brick” working devices.
To dive deeper into the world of planned obsolescence, we are launching a blog series entitled Junked by Design. In it, I’ll be exposing the most flagrant examples of devices whose lifespans are cut short due to deliberate manufacturer choices. I’ll also be sharing stories of consumers who have learned the hard way that they don’t quite own their stuff like they thought they did.
But at U.S. PIRG, we don’t just call out problems — we propose solutions.
Our country can develop standards that make sure that products are designed to be repaired, refurbished and reused, not thrown out. We can adopt policies like Right to Repair that work to put the power of ownership back in the hands of the consumer. We should defend reuse and expand protections that allow people to repurpose technology.
By doing so, we might be able to make things like we used to.
Maybe I’m a curmudgeon at an early age, but I long for a time when things were built to last. A time when you could keep your stuff running as long as you wanted to with the right parts, tools and a little ingenuity — or at least the number of a good repair guy. If that means I’m turning into my father, then doggonit, bring it on.
Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, PIRG
Kevin helps run U.S. PIRG's Right to Repair campaign. He got his start as a Green Corps organizer, where he worked with Mighty Earth to call on Bridgestone to stop deforestation and human exploitation for natural rubber. He also led an effort to get a majority of both houses of the Massachusetts state Legislature to co-sponsor the 100% Renewable Energy Act. Kevin lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he enjoys reading, running and rooting for his Oakland A's from afar.