Entropy isn’t just a word, it’s the (second) law (of thermodynamics): the idea that things tend towards chaos and brokenness. That’s why the Right to Repair is so close to our heart: fixing things is nothing less than the embodiment of the ancient struggle to wring order from chaos, to stave off deterioration and collapse.
It’s no coincidence that farmers are the vanguard for Right to Repair. People who live in rural, low-population zones have to fend for themselves when entropy is visited upon their tools. Farmers can’t wait for days or weeks for a part or a service technician: they literally have to make hay while the sun shines. Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been making and adapting their tools, and workshops and even forges are mainstays of agricultural life.
We can’t simply leave our hospitals undersupplied or sitting on broken hardware until the emergency has passed.
Coronavirus has given us all a taste of what life is like for farmers and other people far from repair and parts. With global supply chains in chaos and whole cities on lockdown, broken things might not get fixed unless you can fix them.
Lucky for us, we still have the Internet, which is full of repair instructions (including iFixit’s massive repository of “repair guides for every thing”) and we have more access to tools than at any time in history, including—for some of us—futuristic tools-that-make-tools, like laser-cutters, CNC mills, and 3D printers.
These have already begun to play a key role in the pandemic. A hospital in Brescia, Italy reportedly rehabilitated a broken, urgently needed Venturi oxygen mask for the hospital’s ventilator with help from local 3D printing entrepreneurs who brought their printer to the hospital, designed a replacement part on the spot, and printed it out, successfully repairing the respirator so that it could be used to save lives.
The story is a heartwarming mix of modern miracle and solidarity in a crisis, but there’s more going on under the surface.
It turns out that the reason that the part had to be designed from scratch is that the manufacturer refused to help with the project. One of the people involved says that he was threatened with patent litigation if he tried; his colleagues differ on the matter, but they agree that the company refused to share design files. And sending threats or not, the part’s designer still says he will not distribute the plans for a replacement.
All around the world, there is a shortage of ventilators and ventilator parts—and at the same time, the country that does the lion’s share of high-tech manufacturing, China, is running at extremely reduced capacity. While online communities are crowdsourcing multiple plans for open source hardware ventilators and other pandemic-related technology, the most important thing they and companies can do is work in concert to keep existing, tested tech functional.
Getting this kind of med-tech project right is important, and it’s hard. The global supply-chain shutdown has revealed the fragility of long distance, complex manufacturing systems that are organized around central hubs that represent points of critical failure. The surge in open source hardware designs and parts for medical equipment during the emergency represents a distributed, urgently needed decentralization of our world’s critical manufacturing capacity. Even as these distributed efforts reduce the hazards of failing health systems, they have the potential to create their own hazards. The best way to ensure that emergency repairs and modifications are safe is for original manufacturers to cooperate with community technicians. Indeed, that’s the only way—we can’t simply leave our hospitals undersupplied or sitting on broken hardware until the emergency has passed.
The very nature of emergency medicine means that front-line professionals must make decisions about how to keep their equipment running when it is not fully functional. Even under normal circumstances, there aren’t always timely, reliable sources of parts and skilled service. The right person to decide whether a field repair should be attempted, and whether the repair is solid enough to rely upon are medical professionals, not the shareholders of med-tech companies or the lawyers who write their terms of service and patent applications.
We are all like farmers now—isolated, with machinery that we can’t afford to let sit idle until a distant company can help us repair it. Today, we need those companies to step up by providing repair instructions, specifications, and technical aid to the global volunteer corps of makers and fixers who have given themselves over to helping us all weather this calamity.