Future Tense

We Are Living in a Land of Broken Things

Illustration of a short older woman with white hair in braids pointing with her metal arm to a Screeching Weasel patch on someone's jacket. The older woman's metal arm has a unicorn image on it.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

A journalist who has covered the right-to-repair movement for years responds to Josh Bales’ “In the Land of Broken Things.”

The great trick of “In the Land of Broken Things” is not that it reveals some horrible “what-if” future; it’s that it reveals the painful absurdity of our immediate situation.

In Josh Bales’ story, the character Donovan is ready to blow a hole in someone to get his wife’s oxygen concentrator fixed. A vital part, the compressor, needs to be replaced, but it’s a specialized design—extras aren’t easy to come by. Our hero, Mallory, goes on a desperate journey to find such a part. She navigates roads that are under the control of corporate drones, dodging a toll and getting detained in response.

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Many readers, accustomed to privileged lives filled with annual iPhone upgrades and their own good health, might view these problems as little more than dystopian plot devices. In fact, they reflect encroaching crises of the modern day.

Last spring, with the COVID-19 pandemic spiraling into apocalypse, hospitals faced dire shortages of ventilator valves. Civilian volunteers stepped up to create 3D-printed replica parts. The feel-good narrative of tech-savvy citizens doing their part may have called to mind Rosie the Riveter, but there was something ugly beneath the surface. In Italy, volunteers asked a medical supplier to provide blueprints for a valve but were rebuffed. “They said they couldn’t give us the file because it’s company property,” one volunteer told the Verge. The design is patented—a trade secret—so copying it would be illegal. The group pressed on without assistance from the manufacturer, reverse-engineering the valve as best it could.

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This particular aspect of the ventilator crisis is a perfect distillation of an ongoing conflict over the so-called right-to-repair movement. On one side are tech manufacturers who wish to closely guard how their devices are constructed. On the other are individuals seeking an open flow of information and parts that would allow equipment to be independently repaired. Although the movement has made headlines for its connections to consumer tech—Apple has lobbied against it for years, to keep its tight control over devices like the iPhone—medical equipment has also emerged as a flashpoint in the debate. This year, right-to-repair bills are being considered across the United States, with California, Texas, Arkansas, and Hawaii weighing legislation that refers specifically to the panoply of devices you’d find in a hospital.

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Corporations are currently under no legal obligation to provide documentation or parts to independent experts. Instead, they profit from a tightly controlled repair industry layered atop their manufacturing business. Their argument is that restricting access to information and device components maintains quality—understandably a concern for lifesaving medical equipment. But the restrictions only delay service to busted gear, itself a life-and-death problem.

“By preventing fully capable, on-site biomeds from fixing medical equipment as soon as it breaks, manufacturers are doing a disservice to a wide variety of patients,” Kevin O’Reilly, a right-to-repair advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, wrote earlier this year. “A 2018 FDA report even found that ‘availability of third party entities to service and repair medical devices is critical to the functioning of the U.S. healthcare system.’ ”

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In lieu of right-to-repair legislation that deals specifically with medical equipment, we have our own version of Bales’ Cove, where Mallory negotiates for a rare compressor (and a Star Wars DVD—hopefully not Attack of the Clones). As Lauren Goode reported for Wired last year, independent actors have gathered and shared medical repair manuals for years, a small act of resistance against withholding corporations. IFixit has now collected thousands of those documents in an online archive, and it even has a whole section for oxygen concentrators.

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Of course, the right to repair wouldn’t do Reverte, Mallory, and Donovan much good. By the time most of the electronics on our planet are ruined by a flood of “solar vomit,” things will have deteriorated far beyond the grasp of the legislature—although democratizing information ahead of time may have increased the odds that our characters knew what to do with the oxygen concentrator in the first place. But while Mallory’s journey across a sun-blasted hellscape is dramatic, it’s more metaphor than outright fiction. Many people, and especially those in rural areas, struggle to get their medical devices fixed. In their desperation, they sometimes turn to hacks or circumvent digital rights management software. The struggle is real, you might say.

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“In the Land of Broken Things” points to another consequence of our era’s repair woes. As Mallory approaches Reverte Repairs at the story’s onset, she passes “rusted-out artifacts shoved to one side of the road decades ago, after the Ejection had fried their electronics. Over time they seemed to be gradually fusing with the cracked, washed-out blacktop.” Fixing things may sometimes be a matter of life and death, but it is always about waste. The longer things last, the less frequently we need to create new things—and the fewer technofossils suffuse our landscapes.

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Many of us do not often see the electronic waste that’s filling our planet at a rate of 59 million tons per year. But it is certainly there, creating a new geological layer. Corporate policies that discourage repair ultimately encourage the purchase of fresh equipment. Whether by solar flare or the simple march of time, the result will be precisely as Bales describes: tides of junk with nowhere to go.

So the reader can imagine what it’s like to be in Mallory’s shoes, riding down Interstate WM-Seven-Five. The road is controlled by corporate forces. They insist on compliance. That’s an option—maintaining the status quo always is.

But maybe something different is possible, too. Consider the broken things in the world around you. Imagine how they might be fixed. Don’t quake on the corporate road. Try to hear the bikers roar.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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