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Restart Podcast Ep. 39: Repair and autonomy in a networked world

autonomy right

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The design of technology and technological systems has deep consequences for our use of products and services.

Alison Powell, Assistant Professor at LSE, researches our understanding and building of technology, from a social perspective, and how technological systems in turn change the way we work and live together. Powell spoke at our inaugural Fixfest in 2017 alongside Kyle Wiens of iFixit, and we’d been meaning to invite her onto our podcast since.

In this episode, we discuss links between design, innovation and our right to repair.

A question of rights, plural

As Powell suggests, we can think of the right to repair as a right to have autonomy. The right to know how our devices work and the autonomy to make decisions like modifying them or fixing them if they break. Her earlier work on open hardware informs her perspectives on autonomy and its possibilities.

We talk about repairability as a great example of information asymmetry – as manufacturers have control over repair manuals and spare parts, they restrict the capacity of people to understand and fix their products.

A right to audit, and to revert

One way of gaining more control over our products could be to track changes in the way our stuff works. This is what Powell calls “auditability”. What happens if a product or service changes so much that you no longer want it? Shouldn’t you have the right to say ‘I don’t want this anymore’?

As an example, we talk about software in Android smartphones, where there is no way, unless you are very technically confident and skilled, to go back to the old version after accepting an update. Powell suggests that a ‘right to revert’ could also be part of our set of rights to repair.

Discussing security

Part of Powell’s work is focused on the design of Internet-connected devices, through the Virt-EU project. From her conversations with developers, she highlights the tension in balancing openness and security when designing consumer technology.

Closed systems can be more efficient and more resistant to security threats, however, they can enhance the information asymmetries that limit our right(s) to repair. As an example, we talk about Apple’s controversial T2 chip, which could contain a ‘kill switch‘, disabling devices repaired by third parties.

Without discounting the challenges of security in our increasingly networked world, Powell maintains that security features cannot be an excuse to hold excessive control over the devices we use. She pushes us not only to demand autonomy to decide how we might tinker with or repair our products, but to seek out gaps in the market and opportunities that this autonomy can create.


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