Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, is leading a team of journalists on a documentary trip in Africa to meet the community of electronics technicians who fix and remake the world’s discarded electronics. Here, he describes the inspiration for the trip. This post was originally published in The Atlantic on October 7, 2011. Brian X. Chen and Kyle Wiens contributed to this story.
My physics professor summarized the Three Laws of Thermodynamics with an allegory: “You can’t win. You can’t break even. And you can’t get out of the game.”
That’s because entropy always wins. Everything fails eventually. Food spoils. Cars break down. People die. When was the last time you broke a cellphone? My handsets are lucky to last a year without some form of major damage. Multiply my clumsiness by a couple billion other imperfect people, and you’ll start to wonder how long it will be until the cellphone maintenance business is bigger than the manufacturing business.
But the truth is, winning the battle against entropy is essential to our future, because we live in a world run by machines. Our transport is powered by big machines — locomotive-sized beasts lumbering across fields while hauling gigantic amounts of cargo. Our communications are powered by a global wireless network of over two billion cellphones, each using hundreds of millions of transistors. Our energy is summoned from incredibly robust oil wells drilled miles beneath the ocean surface.
Machines are the fundamental underpinnings that keep our civilization running, and when entropy wins, our world begins to fall apart.
How can we fight entropy? For starters, repairing our broken possessions and maintaining our machines. We need hackers, tinkerers, mechanics and repair technicians fighting for our survival. We need fixers.
The mechanics who keep the world running are the hidden strength of our civilization. They are the oil that keeps the engine of progress running smoothly. These specialized technicians are just as essential to society as the engineers who designed our technology.
But who are they? What motivates them to dissect filthy cars and inhale solder fumes every day? How do they learn their skill, in a world that disrespects their work and increasingly denigrates their trades? And finally, perhaps most importantly, at what point does repair become craftsmanship?
I’m going to find out. I’m going to go find these fixers and tell their story. I just left for Africa, where I’ll be journeying through the slums of Kibera, Egypt’s infamous Garbage City, and Cairo’s electronics markets, revealing how and why fixers do what they do — their tips and tricks of the trade, life stories and philosophies.
Working with me to tell the story of the unsung repairman are Brian X. Chen, WIRED contributor and author of the book Always On, Jon Snyder, associate photo editor and staff photographer of WIRED, and Justin Fantl, photographer for Popular Mechanics and New York Times Magazine.
Photo Credit: Kyle Wiens in Delhi, India.