It was finals week April 2021, deep into online school. Sage Houston raced to finish her final essays for her history and political science courses. Mid-essay, her MacBook unexpectedly shut down and refused to boot back-up again.
The then-second year started to panic. Without her laptop or access to the computers in IKB due to COVID-19, writing multiple term papers seemed impossible. Repairing her MacBook meant spending hundreds of dollars. Apple user or not, Houston’s story is not uncommon. Many UBC students have experienced the emotional and financial stress of broken tech or know someone who has.
Reliable access to a laptop or tablet has become essential to navigate student life.
Dr. Sathish Gopalakrishnan, an associate professor in the department of computer engineering, noticed that some students in his classes struggled to complete assignments because they couldn’t afford their own computers. It immediately struck him as an equity issue.
“I get some number of students every year who don’t have access to their own laptop, or they don’t have access to an extra monitor,” Gopalakrishnan said.
Gopalakrishnan said that the computer engineering department upgrades their devices every couple of years, leaving a surplus of broken, but not unfixable, computers that students could use. But even if the department provided students with old or damaged technology, they likely wouldn’t have the knowledge or the parts to be able to fix it.
What if a broken laptop didn’t mean sky-high fees? Why is our technology so inaccessible to repair?
Fighting for the ‘right to repair’
Advocates at UBC and worldwide are demanding the right to repair: a growing movement which argues that people should have the access to the knowledge and parts necessary to fix their own devices.
With the rise of computer chip technology and the growing power of tech industry giants in the past decades, repair has become increasingly vital — and increasingly inaccessible.
More and more everyday products include computer chips — not only laptops and iPhones but also ‘smart’ watches, refrigerators and washing machines.
Smarter devices come at a cost. Since computer chips are more complicated and harder to manufacture, repair increasingly becomes the purview of elite industry specialists. It also means that the market is at the mercy of the computer chip supply chain shortage, driving supply down and prices up.
“A lot of places that repair laptops will just make you pay through the roof for it,” said second-year UBC arts student Adrian Hung. “Especially when you’re using a Mac, which was what I was working with.”
According to right to repair advocates and scholars, corporations such as Apple deliberately make it difficult: their repair manuals are copyrighted and not available to the public, and necessary replacement parts are branded and available only at Apple stores.
As technology has become more complex and highly specialized, most people lack the repair skills to repair their own devices — even computer engineers like Gopalakrishnan.
“When I was in high school, it was very easy to buy a computer and assemble it yourself,” said Gopalakrishnan. “But as of right now, if you buy a branded machine, you just can’t do it.”
UBC global environmental politics professor Dr. Peter Dauvergne agreed.
“Companies are using planned obsolescence to foster overconsumption.” Planned obsolescence refers to the idea that corporations design products to break prematurely, to force consumers to upgrade to newer models.
This waste is bad for students and the environment.
Gopalakrishnan said that he finds that students want to learn how to fix computers, they just need the training and the parts.
“One of the challenges that I’ve experienced with repairing electronics these days, especially computing equipment, is that it requires some specialized knowledge,” said Gopalakrishnan. “This is not what we actually teach our students, in the sense that we teach people in engineering programs how to build new stuff, but not necessarily how to take apart something that’s old and fix it.”
A recipe for community repair
Gopalakrishnan and Dr. Milind Kandlikar, a professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, are creating an educational hub for electronics repair called the E-Kitchen. The E-Kitchen will function much like UBC’s Bike Kitchen, which repairs bikes at accessible costs. The E-Kitchen will fix phones, computers and other tech devices.
According to a press release from spring 2022, the project “aims to make electronic repair and reuse a key part of UBC’s sustainability strategy.” The project received $50,000 in seed funding from the UBC Sustainability Hub in March.
Gopalakrishnan and Kandlikar said they plan to bring in experts to train volunteers in how to repair electronics. Then, they’ll open for business, hopefully sometime this academic year.
The E-Kitchen is part of the Campus as a Living Lab initiative, which uses UBC programs to model sustainability solutions that could scale up to the wider world.
“Student trainees will help distribute refurbished equipment on a need basis to those on the UBC campus, to local schools, as well as among low-income groups across Vancouver and in the region,” said Kandlikar.
Student volunteers at the E-Kitchen could also use the E-Kitchen as a site to conduct research for course credit, which could help others reproduce the initiative elsewhere. For example, students could collect data on the economics of repair.
The project leads also hope that the E-Kitchen can unite people around the right to repair movement while bringing attention to the areas in which legislation could help consumers gain better access to parts and information.
Tech unaffordability widens inequity at UBC
The problem of broken-down tech that the E-Kitchen hopes to address is an inconvenience that impacts some students more than others.
“My laptop was like five years old, I’d had it since high school and it was broken down,” said Hung. “The bottom was literally falling off of it, and I was duct taping it together. I just didn’t have the money to replace it properly at the time.”
Hung’s speakers and the webcam kept shutting down, making it difficult to participate in Zoom classes. One of Hung’s professors also required automated invigilation software Proctorio, which UBC now restricts. Proctorio flags a malfunctioning webcam during an exam as evidence of cheating.
“The big thing is that you can’t really afford to go without it,” said Hung.
Most conversations about inequity in student access to technology focus on whether students have access to the internet at all — what many call “the digital divide.” Although there are still concerning gaps, a 2018 study found that basic access to a connected device has become more commonplace and equitable in recent years.
However, the same study found that the biggest source of digital inequality is now between students who can afford to repair their devices and those that can’t. Researchers call this divide the “technology maintenance construct.”
Low-income students often work with less reliable technology, which is an obstacle to academic success.
“I mean, access to technology is just across the board, not just for students, probably one of the most financially crippling things there are,” said Hung. “We’ve created a society in which you can’t get by without a mobile phone.”
In the context of the student affordability crisis in Vancouver, purchasing and maintaining devices becomes an extra expense on top of rising tuition, food costs, rents and more.
Where does the broken tech go?
There’s no good way to dispose of e-waste, and landfills are overflowing.
“E-waste is an escalating price for the world right now,” said Dauvergne. “Each year we’re producing over 15 million tons, everything from dishwashers to TVs, microwave computers, cell phones, and only 10 to 20 per cent of that is safely recycled.”
Waste management corporations and the Canadian government ship the majority of that e-waste to regions in the Global South with cheaper labour and fewer human rights protections, such as Ghana, Pakistan and the Philippines.
“It’s wealthy consumers that are primarily responsible for producing [e-waste]. And it’s the poorest neighbourhoods in the poorest communities ... that end up becoming locations for where a lot of the e-waste is being dumped,” said Dauvergne.
E-waste recycling is a difficult and dangerous job, which often falls on women and children, according to the World Health Organization. The toxic heavy metals and flame retardants which batteries release when broken down make e-waste a major environmental pollutant and a health hazard.
Dauvergne and Gopalakrishnan both emphasized that corporations as well as consumers are to blame for our unsustainable consumption patterns.
“It’s often not really in [companies] interests to have people repair or reuse, because they really want people to buy, buy, buy and growth is what gives investors confidence, and that pushes up share prices,” said Dauvergne.
The toxic e-waste which continues to pile up in the most economically-marginalized regions of the world is the cost.
Repairing a broken political system
Beyond small-scale community repair initiatives like the E-Kitchen, the right to repair movement has big-picture goals. Some advocates hope to include the right to repair into federal legislation.
The movement has popular support. According to a 2019 national online omnibus survey, 75 per cent of Canadians support regulations to mandate that companies make information, parts and tools necessary for repair accessible at reasonable prices.
Houston is among them. “I think it would be wonderful to see massive policy changes like that,” she said.
However, she’s concerned that multinational corporations have too much control over the federal government.
In 2019, lobbying from Apple killed a right to repair bill in Ontario, which would have required tech companies to provide replacement parts and repair manuals to the public at fair prices.
“In the context of how the US and Canadian governments are handling these multinational corporations, there’s been a lot of tip-toeing,” said Houston.
Although the right to repair is popular, meaningful legislation against anti-repair business practices would require governments to take on big business more decisively than both Houston and Dauvergne think is likely.
Still, the right to repair has made some political strides. Bill C-272, which allows independent repair contractors to bypass ‘digital locks’ — which previously made some repairs prosecutable as violations of copyright law — passed with overwhelming support in January 2021. Meanwhile, in the US, the Department of Justice recently announced a potential antitrust lawsuit against Apple for monopolistic business practices.
Although there’s no quick fix, repair advocates at UBC believe that it helps to start locally.
“This is how you get legislators on board, right? You show that it works and it’s financially reasonable, and you get the energy of the young people,” said Dauvergne. “There’s so much eco-anxiety among the young people right now. Real initiatives like the E-Kitchen that achieve concrete outcomes with very clear imagination on scalability ... are just very empowering.”
Back in 2021, Houston was ultimately able to get an academic concession for her broken laptop and finish her finals. Her computer was still on warranty, and she got the corrupted logic board replaced.
Although she feels abandoned by systems which prioritize corporate profit over sustainability or consumer rights, her community gives her hope that repair is still possible. She cited the UBC E-Kitchen proposal as an example.
Elsewhere in Vancouver, the Vancouver Black Library, which opened on September 4, also hopes to include a lending library of secondhand repaired devices to help people out if they need to write an email, do some research or make a call. Similarly, Vancouver nonprofit Metro Van Repair Cafés holds monthly repair events where experienced volunteers help newcomers repair their tech, as well as bikes, jewelry and small appliances.
“When you look outwards and it’s very overwhelming and nothing seems like it’s changing, looking back into the community level always feels very comforting,” said Houston.
Adrian Hung is a contributor to The Ubyssey. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this piece.