Analog work in a digital world: global ecologies of electronics repair

Authors: Julia E Corwin*, London School of Economics and Political Science
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Political Geography, Environment
Keywords: repair, electronics, political ecology, automation
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Balcony B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2016 Apple introduced “Liam” to the world. A robot designed to disassemble iPhones, Liam has 29 arms and multiple conveyor belts and has been touted by Apple as the next level of innovation after the iPhone. Liam promised efficient recycling and the quick transfer of old iPhone’s components and materials to create new iPhones, part of a growing interest in the ‘circular economy’ as a solution to the global problem of waste accumulation. The “innovation” of Liam follows the innovation of the iPhone as a device designed to be difficult to repair and disassemble, from strictly enforced warranties that discourage unauthorized repair to their use of a rare 5-pointed screw driver that has to be specially manufactured to open iPhones. Apple’s attempts to restrict repair and recycling to automated processes are part of larger trends in waste management towards industrial recycling. However, electronics repair and recycling remains a domain where automation is, perhaps counter-intuitively, often far less efficient than skilled and improvisatory human labor, in which repairers work with diverse materials to create new and innovative products as well as dismantle a vast array of different types of electronics. This paper explores how corporate, automatized electronics recycling competes against growing local and non-corporate repair ecologies (particularly in the Global South), and how their attempts to curtail reuse and repair unfold through fights over the right to repair and claims to environmental safety and technological expertise.

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