Should You Have the Right to Repair Products You Own?

The engineering ethics of planned obsolescence are less black-and-white than you think.
Brad Bergan

Whenever you buy a product — like a smartphone, a laptop, or a gaming console  — and it breaks, chances are you're not legally allowed to fix it yourself, and have to either send it in for repairs or buy a replacement. But what if you didn't?

The notion that consumers have the right to modify or repair their own electronic devices isn't new, but it's one many manufacturers like Apple have actively resisted.

Progress with 'right to repair' rules amid COVID-19

In the U.S., the movement behind "right to repair" concerns is working to prohibit companies from restricting the self-repair of electronics, or limiting the availability of parts you need to repair them.

Last August, Democrats introduced a bill in Congress to stop manufacturers' attempts to limit the repair or modification of medical devices amid the need for quick makeshift solutions surrounding the pandemic.

'Right to repair' in EU could alter long-term marketing

Months later, the E.U.'s Parliament voted in favor of a new resolution on a "sustainable single market." The 2020 vote brought the region closer to the frontlines of the "right to repair" movement, which would not only enable people to self-repair or -modify devices — but also make them last longer.

Earlier, the E.U. Commission had declared aims to enact new "right to repair" rules for laptops, smartphones, and tablets sometime in 2021.

Beyond the obvious consumer financial protection for "right to repair" laws, the movement's success in E.U. worked to encourage more sustainable consumer and business choices, in addition to more responsible and long-term marketing and advertising.

Planned obsolescence and modern marketing

Since the 20th century, many companies have introduced "planned obsolescence" into the production of goods — which involves intentionally designing consumer goods to become obsolete (or break) in time for a new model or upgrade, and make more money.

This is done via repeated design alterations, ceasing the production of spare or essential parts, and building products with fragile or non-durable parts.

Psychology of 'good' consumer behavior

This broke with an older notion of engineering where, if you built a machine or device, the goal was to create something to last. For example, the Centennial Bulb — an incandescent light bulb produced in the 19th century — was built so well it survived for at least 120 years (there's even a webcam feed of its dim light that refreshes every 30 seconds).

The practice was so successful in the last century that many marketing and advertising agencies hired Freudian psychoanalysts to build marketing campaigns with the intent to normalize re-purchased goods — linking proactive consumer habits with personal growth in the public mind.

Citizens United can delay 'right to repair' in US

It's not hard to believe that the E.U. has made more progress with "right to repair" rules, since "Citizens United" — a 2010 Supreme Court case — ruled independent political spending by corporations and unions is protected under the First Amendment as free speech.

In other words, corporate spending to influence legislative processes is legally protected as a human right. In light of this situation, when powerful manufacturers of smartphones, tablets, laptops, or even cars prefer not to allow consumers a "right to repair," their legal opponents face lawyers working on a corporate bankroll.

No 'black-and-white' engineering ethics of planned obsolescence

While the notion of planned obsolescence at first glance seems to fly in the face of engineering ethics, the reality of designing products with less durability or longevity than is technically possible is far from black-and-white. According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, the fulfillment of professional duties includes a rule to "avoid deceptive acts."

And when advertising campaigns convince consumers to conceive of new electronic devices as non-durable products — to be replaced with newer technological breakthroughs or upgraded as a status symbol — the "right to repair" can lose priority in the minds of customers. So it's difficult to classify planned obsolescence as straightforwardly "deceptive," which means it doesn't always qualify as a breach of engineering ethics, not necessarily.

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