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I first discovered Kyle Wiens, the cofounder and CEO of iFixit, through “Things Come Apart: A Teardown Manual for Modern Living,” a book full of photographs of disassembled objects.
“Things Come Apart” is the type of beautiful book that’s meant to be on display. My late husband and I kept it on our coffee table after receiving it as a gift in late 2016.
I understand more than I’d like to that things fall apart. In the years since my husband’s death in 2017, we’ve witnessed some heavy world events. Donald Trump was in office for four years, a presidency marked by turmoil, corruption and battles over the truth. Climate change has become an increasingly dangerous threat, as evidenced by record wildfires, flooding and hurricanes. And, of course, we are in a global pandemic. Five years ago, we’d never heard of Covid-19. Now, the topic is impossible to avoid.
There are undoubtedly positive things to note from the past few years, but they can sometimes be harder to identify. Recent history appears to be marred by divisiveness, uncertainty and fear.
That’s why I decided to revisit “Things Come Apart.” As I flipped through captivating photographs of objects in disrepair, I discovered that the book contained a handful of essays. Wiens’ contribution, “The Repair Revolution,” made the case that life is full of problems to solve, including fixing broken objects.
As I read his words, I thought about the damaged state of our world. Wiens’ advice pertained to physical objects, but I wondered whether it could apply to a wider lens – the systems and relationships around us that appear to be crumbling.
I called him up. Here’s what I learned.
Everything will fall apart eventually
As consumers, we are often drawn to fancy new objects. But Wiens tends to look at potential purchases through a different lens. “I think, what will go wrong with it?” he said.
“I have a little bit more of a cynical attitude, I guess,” Wiens explained. “Everything is going to break, no matter how well built it is.”
Wiens’ view resonated with me, as someone who’s faced deep grief. Everything is impermanent – our lives and our belongings – and accepting that impermanence is key to resilience.
Psychologists say that recognizing how fragile existence is leads to embracing the present. It allows us to be more mindful and better appreciate the current moment. This too, applies to our physical belongings. By realizing they will one day break, we are more likely to treat objects with care.
“This is existential to what life is, right?” Wiens mused. “If the force of the universe is pushing and tearing things apart, then our entire lives – everything we’re doing – is trying to add order to reverse that entropy. I think it’s something that we take for granted.”
We should all feel empowered to fix things.
Fortunately, when objects break, we have the opportunity to repair them. Many of us – me included – have been conditioned to throw away our old appliances, furniture or electronics when they malfunction. Wiens, along with his company iFixit, wants to change that.
An online repair community, iFixit is dedicated to restoring broken objects. The site boasts a massive library of crowdsourced repair manuals – at the time of publication, there were nearly 77,000 free manuals available for nearly 35,000 devices. Users can fix anything from a broken toaster or a malfunctioning game console to a busted laptop or a car that won’t start.
Choosing to fix broken objects instead of replacing them is a key step to sustainability, Wiens said. “Anytime you’re fixing something, you’re deferring having to manufacture another one,” he explained.
Of course, fixing some objects is harder than others. Many manufacturers of devices like smartphones, laptops and wireless headphones have increasingly designed products that are difficult to repair without specialized equipment or access to authorized repair shops. Not only is this costly for consumers, it’s also bad for the environment.
Over the past few years, there has been a growing global effort, known as the “right to repair” movement, to push these manufacturers to make repairs easier and more accessible. Recently, that movement got a big boost from US President Joe Biden.
Biden issued an executive order in July aimed at promoting competition in the US economy, which includes a provision that directs the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules preventing manufacturers from imposing restrictions on DIY repairs and independent device repair shops.
Wiens is encouraged by this progress. “We’ve been talking about this for decades,” he said. “Finally, we’re starting to see some attention.”
Like a true hands-on guy, he added, “We just have to turn that into tangible action.”
What can we do? Anything
I never expected to receive philosophical advice from someone best known for fixing broken objects, but there is a lot I couldn’t predict about this time in which we live. Considering how broken the world feels lately, someone who’s built his career on repairing things is perhaps the perfect source for advice.
“We are in a fragmented, fractured society right now, and people tend to throw up their arms and say that we can’t solve anything,” Wiens said.
He doesn’t buy that mindset. Wiens said one approach to feeling more capable of solving problems is to begin with “something tangible and practical in your life,” like, say, a broken vacuum cleaner.
His company currently has repair guides for 41 different brands of vacuum cleaners, the first appliance that Wiens remembers fixing alongside his handyman grandfather. Today, with the help of iFixit, users can learn how to replace the power button on a Bissell Pet Hair Eraser or fix the motor of a Ryobi VC120.
What you choose to fix doesn’t matter as much as the act of repair itself. “We really do think that repair has the opportunity to bring people together and set a mold of success that can be modeled elsewhere,” Wiens said.
Again, there are mental health benefits to this approach. Repairing tangible objects requires absorption in the task at hand, also known as “flow,” which psychologists link to happiness. Likewise, researchers have found that doing something to help fix a bigger problem, such as donating to a charitable cause, activates regions of the brain associated with social connection, pleasure and trust.
Whether it’s repairing objects or fixing broken systems, the most important thing is to get started, Wiens said. “People are so intimidated (to try and fix things),” he added. “But once you remove the first screw and you start, you’re gonna succeed. Almost all of the obstacles are in your head, making you afraid to begin.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kyle Wiens’ last name.
Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a freelance writer and mental health advocate. She writes a weekly newsletter called “My Sweet Dumb Brain.”