DIY : Breaking Free from the Tyranny of Products

SOME USER ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. Nasa 21st century Exploration Poster on display in JFK Space Center.

What has emerged as the “right-to-repair” movement may help you keep as much money in your pocket as last year’s tax cuts did, if not more.

Around that same time, my then 3-year old iPhone 6 Plus struggled to do pretty much anything.

I could have gone to the Apple Store and “upgraded” to an iPhone X. That’s what the conventional wisdom these days suggests is the way to go — you know, “phones grow old and slow” — but instead I decided I had had enough of that. If you have some STEM literacy, you know that the part of a phone that ages worst is the lithium battery. They’re good for about two or three years. If you grew up tinkering, you may even be up to the task of replacing a battery rather than having some designated “techie” do it for you.

I chose to do it myself. I got the parts (battery, suction cup, and screwdriver) and instructions from iFixit and did it with my kids, so I got a bit of family time and STEM/tinkering out of the effort. We were done in an afternoon.

The fix cost about $50. And I kept the $1000 a new phone iPhone X would have cost in my pocket.

That’s the moral of this part of the story: I decided to take matters into my own hands, liberated myself from planned obsolescence, and broke some of the bonds of enslavement to the tyranny of products. A modicum of STEM literacy can accomplish that for anyone. It’s also a story of curtailing waste: $50 kept me from wasting $1000 and gave new life to the $600 I had already invested.

This is important. That savings of $1000 is about the same amount as the average American got out of the recent tax cuts. So, in a sense, I doubled that amount by adding another $1000 from my Apple “cut” to the tax cut. It’s almost as if liberating myself from this one corner of product tyranny makes me as powerful as Washington.

But the story continued after that. A year after my triumph over my battery, an accidental fall shattered my iPhone’s screen. This time around, I took it to Apple for repair. After a kind greeting from the Genius Bar employee and a two-hour wait, another Apple employee— this one with an attitude — returned my phone back to me as it was. “Apple declines the repair” was the message he delivered, because someone unauthorized by Apple had dared to replace a battery. Despite that I confessed I had done it, the employee with the attitude still insisted on showing me pictures of the battery as proof of my “crime.”

I asked for options, and got a contemptuous answer. “Take it to whoever those iFixit guys are …”

In this case, I was the iFixit guy — which is how iFixit, which sold me the battery and supplied instructions for free, aims for it to be.

So, with Apple’s apparent blessing, I took the phone next door to an “unauthorized” repair shop and got a new screen installed in 15 minutes for half the price and none of the attitude.

There’s two sides to this story. Before Apple disowned my phone, I shared with friends that Apple’s Engineering prowess beats their design. Their design, enslaved by fashion, is good for that one battery life but their engineering outlasts several batteries and can keep money in your pocket. I even shared with pride that Apple (via iFixit) had afforded me a way to introduce my kids into tinkering.

After Apple disowned my iPhone, past the initial dizziness of being cast out by Apple, I discovered true freedom; MY phone is now finally only mine. It feels good. And my now 4-year old device is still working like a charm.

To be fair to Apple, I could have gotten my battery replaced at their store and stayed on their good side. I chose not to. That decision allowed me to rediscover the fearlessness that comes from truly owning what you buy. Whenever you’re ready to take matters in your own hands you can go DIY and start developing the fearlessness that will help you break free from countless other products. That can only help your pocket, it will certainly help with this economy’s waste problem.

Now, if you’re an investor, you may fear this news spreading. After all, your investment in Apple may rely on that very waste: the near compulsory release of a “new” iPhone every year. If everyone chose instead to give themselves an Apple “cut” like I did, sales would suffer and the stock price might plummet.

But what if Apple is actually trapped by the “tyranny” of its iPhone? What if too much talent is being wasted on the complicated balancing act of releasing something “new” that’s touted as revolutionary yet works like the old one it’s supposed to replace and getting you excited about second-order features you don’t really care about.

What if Apple could break free from that iPhone tyranny and go back to innovating, pure and straightforward, because you have broken out of that tyranny first? I think that’s what the rising right-to-repair movement is getting at.

For all you and I know, Apple is feeling as trapped by the iPhone as is causing you to be. Maybe that’s what’s behind its recent decision to stop sharing unit sales in its quarterly earnings conferences.

By the way, this is not only a story about Apple. I just happen to own an iPhone. I suspect Samsung and Google are as trapped as Apple. And the problem goes beyond phones. On a recent NPR “On Point” show, I heard about right-to-repair examples ranging from phones to John Deere tractors.

This story is about an economy that may be wasting money and talent so you can be locked in, and that in the process traps itself into aging product ideas. How the economy frees itself is another topic for another day, but you can set yourself free with a modicum of STEM literacy, and in the process create for yourself “tax cuts” way above what the government is offering.

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