Engineering Illusions Part III: Private Enterprise and Technology -III
Handling Deader Things
The business of technology is ambivalent about repair. On one hand, attached to a damaged device is usually a desperate customer often willing to pay a hefty repair fee. Repair and aftermarket sales account for up to 40% of revenue for industrial companies. On the other hand, a healthy repair industry undercuts high product turnover, as longevity and responsible reuse brings with it longer product cycles and less profit. The ambivalence is resolved by simply monopolizing and controlling the aftermarket repair process. By eliminating bothersome independent repair enterprises, repair profits are maximized, and control over product lifetime is largely removed from the customer’s hands. Occupying the customer’s hand then is an expensively repaired gadget, or simply a shiny new replacement. As a 2020 study by the Open Markets Institute (OMI) noted, “Monopolizing repair allows corporations to extract additional revenue during the lifespans of their products, but this profiteering comes at a larger social cost.” These externalities include increased costs for consumers, raw material and energy waste, suppression of independent repair businesses, dwindling self-sufficiency and open access.
There is a wide range of tactics utilized to impose the monopolization of repair. Methods include prohibitively contrived product design that hampers or eliminates repair options, concealing documentation, restricting access to tools, and appealing to intellectual property, contract and copyright laws to “criminalize or outright deter independent repair.” While there are consumer protection and antitrust laws that prevent such tactics, “decades of neglected enforcement have created a vacuum allowing manufacturers to push the boundaries of the law and strengthen their hold on repair markets.”
A common tactic is bundling of the product and aftermarket service packages. To exercise control over the product even after sale, manufacturers simply “lock consumers into repair networks by bundling the sale of replacement parts with repair services and other products.” Hence, attempts by the owner to refurbish and reuse products often stall under repair restrictions. Furthermore, restored equipment is disallowed from existing manufacture repair contracts, which often costs more than a fresh purchase. This achieves the goal of driving unnecessary new sales, which would then have new repair support contracts bundled with the purchase. Or as J. George Frederick called it, “efficiency.” Similarly, manufacturers can void warranties if third-party repair parts or services are used. Automobile dealerships and the consumer electronics industry commonly impose such restrictions.
Bundling only goes so far. Ingenious repair service providers and customers deluded enough to think that they fully own the product they purchase must be stopped in their attempts to repair and reuse. To this end, manufacturers simply prohibit the sale of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) replacement parts in the market. This forces customers and repair shops to “salvage used equipment and turn to markets for secondhand parts, and at times intentionally or inadvertently turn to non-OEM parts.”
For instance, as OMI notes, Nintendo does not make available some replacement parts such as the joystick on the Nintendo Switch’s controller, which forces customers to buy new controllers. Camera manufacturer Nikon has been even more aggressive. Claiming that specialized tools are required for repairs, it fully stopped selling all replacement parts to third party repair shops in 2012. Since Nikon makes these tools only available to its own repair operations, “the problem is entirely of its own creation,” notes iFixit, an online repair wiki. Responding to Nikon’s decision, one camera repair shop manager said, “My options now are China, used parts from eBay, and whatever I can salvage.” Indeed, these scrappy measures, likely referred to as ‘scavenging’ in corporate strategy meetings, do not go unnoticed by the manufacturer. Consumers are penalized through various counter-tactics for using third party parts and repairs. For instance, Apple has disabled iPhones repaired with third party parts when users attempted to update the repaired phones’ operating system. Apple corrected this specific issue, but as one expert observed, the message to customers was clear. “Do not use non-genuine Apple parts to fix your device, or else.”
In addition to parts, manufacturers also refuse to sell repair manuals and service software. These are critical pieces to building a robust repair industry that can increase product lifetimes. As OMI noted, “In the past, physical manuals were a standard accompaniment to appliances. Today, however, manufacturers often lock their manuals online behind passwords and paywalls, or they do not make them available at all.” With a technology industry invariably developing products that are highly computerized, software toolkits allow repair services to correctly diagnose device issues. However, these toolkits are often restricted as well. For instance, farmers who own and operate John Deere tractors often do not get access to the manufacturers’ service software which allows them to diagnose simple issues with the equipment. “As a result, some farmers have resorted to hacking their tractors with a bootlegged, Ukrainian version of John Deere’s diagnostic software, rather than waiting hours or paying hundreds of dollars to haul equipment to a dealership just to identify a glitch or install a small part.”
Before this mad dash to control the aftermarket repair process even begins, manufacturers go to great lengths during the product design stage to ensure unsanctioned aftermarket repair attempts are limited or eliminated. Under this design paradigm, a very accessible, easy-to-repair product actually reflects poor product design. Techniques that make repair tortuous, such as fastening with glues, and screws that require specialized tools, or utilizing proprietary locks, instead constitute good design practices. For instance, Apple products use proprietary pentalobe screws which require unique tools to manipulate. The implementation of these screws forces independent repair shops to build custom tools to open Apple devices. However, these changes are always in flux. As OMI notes, “Even when hobbyists can adapt and find workarounds, manufacturers constantly make slight changes to parts to ensure that these DIY solutions do not apply to a brand’s every product.”
Furthermore, manufacturers are increasingly designing products that cannot be repaired at all. “Customers are often not aware that they are purchasing a single-use product.” For instance, Apple AirPods, which retail from $159 to $249, are designed such that “their internal rechargeable battery cannot be replaced without destroying their outer casing or ruining internal components.” As the batteries degrade within the first 18 months of use, consumers must buy Apple’s “battery service,” which simply supplies brand new AirPods at a price less than retail.
Copyright claims are also made over repair manuals and documentation. Ordinarily, copyright restrictions do not apply to “work with procedural elements and factual listings with limited forms of expression.” But repair manuals, which contain diagrams and instructions, often satisfy the “minimum degree of creativity” condition. Hence, companies can render manuals inaccessible, further blocking the dissemination of information, and repair efforts.
These aftermarket regimes weren’t always the norm. To avoid anti-trust enforcement over bundling of its products and services, IBM established a task force in the 1980s “to find additional legal avenues that would help the company maintain its dominance in unbundled products and services without attracting antitrust scrutiny,” notes OMI. By combining various elements of contract and copyright law, IBM created the first End User License Agreement (EULA) to restrict and control after-sales use of their products by customers. EULAs are pre-conditions that users must accept before using a product or service, which impose use and repair limitations on consumers. Furthermore, these loose conditions avail of many favorable state laws, protecting the technology company from responsible technology use.
Today, the technology enterprise is laced with EULAs long enough for their own library. Every electronic product and service comes welded with EULAs that customers routinely assent to, if they are even aware of them in the first place. EULAs do not simply employ length as a pacifier, but complex and specialized legalistic language also helps “hide manufacturers’ true intentions and deter consumers from even attempting to read and understand them.” Indeed, estimates show that simply reading the privacy aspects of EULAs seen annually by the average customer would require more than 200 hours a year.
EULAs are instruments of consumer discipline. As OMI notes, “EULAs grant corporations unprecedented access to monitor, manage, and restrict how consumers use their products, even going so far as to revoke ownership.” This was not always the case. Before 1996, all courts that had analyzed EULAs had declared them unenforceable. A 1996 case, ProCD, Inc. v. Zeidenberg, changed the enforcement of EULAs, and transnational corporations emerged as the beneficiaries. “Through restrictive unilateral contracts, manufacturers have circumvented historical jurisprudence to promote repair and modification, creating, in essence, a parallel legal system.”
The use of engineering, supply chain and legal tactics to monopolize and control the use and reuse of products after sales are ostensibly necessary for innovation. While promoting a vision of technical empowerment that yields free creativity and invention, technology companies recruit the state for protections even in its most fundamental operations, such as repair. That the state complies with the manufacturers’ desire for profit sanctuaries is hardly a novel phenomenon. Adam Smith’s words echo, “In the mercantile regulations, the interest of […] manufacturers has been most peculiarly attended to; and the interest, not so much of the consumers, as that of some other sets of producers, has been sacrificed to it.”
One such sacrifice is the hallowed “efficiency” and “economic security” championed by the business aristocracy and state priesthood. With planned obsolescence and monopolized repair, private capital’s rapacious appetite for infinite profits continues to be fed. Meanwhile, consumers face increasing cost of ownership, society faces a decaying repair industry that breeds a throwaway culture, and our ecosystems face the creation of new mountain ranges composed of electronic waste. In 2018, the world produced 50 million tons of e-waste, a global monument to inefficiency. Composed of discarded laptops, tablets, mobile devices, printers, flat screens, batteries, charger cables, vehicular electronics, cameras, game consoles, home assistant devices, e-watches, e-books, fitness trackers, VR headsets and other excreta produced by the technological enterprise, e-waste is the physical manifestation of the final legacy of the industry, largely shipped to museums called Asia and Africa. Moreover, contained within e-waste are various substances and chemicals that are highly toxic. The World Health Organization cautions that such chemicals can cause adverse effects such as “fetal loss, prematurity, low birth weight, and congenital malformations; abnormal thyroid function and thyroid development; neuro-behavioral disturbances; and genotoxicity,” as a Lancet report on global health noted. Technical salvation: terms and conditions may apply.
Returning to rare earth elements, contained within e-waste and discarded indiscriminately are these very minerals. As the aforementioned Department of Commerce report noted, “While some reuse and recycling of products containing critical minerals is occurring, minerals embedded in existing products or waste streams represent a largely untapped reservoir of potential supply due to the complexity of extracting critical minerals from an end-of-life product.” Less than 1% of REEs are recycled. Even with perfect, 100% recycling, there is an ever-growing need for more materials not in circulation at any given time. A build process that begins by painfully extracting REEs at a high ecological cost terminates in e-waste landfills laced with these minerals. From a tailings pond described as a “truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying,” the journey ends in e-waste potent enough to cause irreversible ecocide. In between these two steps is a brief but voracious feast, one ordained and proliferated by Apple and other ministers of the technological enterprise, relentlessly inducing purchase for “the sense of modernness rather than simply for the last ounce of use,” as J. George Frederick put it.
Independent reuse, recycle, and repair is an anathema; an irreverent violation of the natural order of things that impedes ever-expanding profits for private capital. Restrictions and high prices of repair induce new purchases. Controlling products and services after sales obstruct sober reuse. Progressive obsolescence and superficial updates make the entire matter of product longevity irrelevant. Under the pretensions of a sound and efficient technical civilization operates a reckless, wasteful and inane enterprise obsessed with gimmick innovations predestined to become fossils after transient use. Far removed from sophisticated habitats such as tantalizing technology conferences and gleaming corporate offices lie the final outputs of these activities. After our devout pilgrimages to Apple stores and Amazon.com, in tailings ponds and mountainous landfills we will find the terminal blessings of the Valley.
Emancipating Technology by Emancipating Labor
Broadly, the modern technological enterprise has been built upon four transformations that brought forth new waves of advancing technologies at scale. In the late 18th century, it was the First Industrial Revolution that fostered mechanized manufacturing. Inventions such as the cotton gin and Watt’s steam engine set the foundations for faster production and transport. A century later, the Second Industrial Revolution harnessed gas, oil and electricity as new sources of industrial power. Advancements in communication such as telegraph and telephone, combined with faster mass production further accelerated industrial activity, and hence, productivity. Two crown jewels of the era were the automobile and the airplane. In the late twentieth century, the Third Industrial Revolution brought forth advancements such as computers, electronics and robotics. Breakthroughs during this period also yielded space travel and biotechnological developments. One may consider an ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution, fostering advanced digital communications, techniques for the targeted manipulation of biology, artificial intelligence, and automation. As the World Economic Forum observes, “Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”
From this wide array of impressive and interdependent technical inventions, it may be a difficult task to select one transformational period that has had an outsized impact. Yet, in the face of space shuttles, the internet, automobiles and electrification, it is the First Revolution that stands out for a particularly radical change that would inscribe dramatic and lasting shifts in society, till today. We speak here of the collapse of the egalitarian visions of Adam Smith and analogous thinkers, who had theorized that individual freedom and autonomy would be fostered in the free marketplace by extricating people from various regimes of rule, as discussed earlier.
As was postulated by Smith, creating equitable self-employment opportunities would dissolve social hierarchies and feudalistic relationships which invariably entailed the loss of autonomy. A nexus of proprietorships such as the oft-cited butcher, baker, or the small pin factory, free from lordship, would yield the wonderful emancipation of those that otherwise only served as subjects. However, the mechanization of production and mass manufacturing of the First Industrial Revolution thwarted these hopes. Anderson notes, “The Industrial Revolution shattered the egalitarian ideal of universal self-government in the realm of production.”
The concentration of capital required for such substantial operations combined with large workforces eroded the equalizing vision of the egalitarians. The anticipated expansion of free self-employment and small proprietorships engendering independent labor was stomped by the counter expansion of employment to and subjugation by the industrial enterprise. Private capital established large operations that were made valuable by the labor of many, managed by the few, and owned by even fewer. Such an employment relationship that violated worker autonomy and proprietary ownership in one’s own labor was considered an affront by Smith and other radicals prior to the Industrial Revolution. Anderson notes, “Preindustrial labor radicals, viewing the vast degradation of autonomy, esteem, and standing entailed by the new productive order in comparison with artisan status, called it wage slavery. Liberals called it free labor.”
Outside the boundaries of the private enterprise, movement of labor in and out of employment contracts aesthetically appeared free (if one celebrates the free choice of employment or starvation). However, analyzing hierarchies within the private enterprise, entailing the invariable loss of self-determination, coercive and exploitative working conditions, and excess value of labor removed from wages revealed a different relationship. Smith died never witnessing the full development of the industrial machine and the associated pervasive social stratification of the population into owners, managers and the workers. He had postulated that increasing commerce and manufacturing would eradicate people’s “servile dependency upon their superiors,” which he considered “by far the most important of all their effects.” However, with the most awesome expansion of commerce and manufacturing seen at the time, it only drove the broader population into a deeper, more regimented, omnipresent “servile dependency” than anything the egalitarians could have foreseen. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was economist and philosopher Karl Marx who had available to himself the advantage of studying the full manifestation of this transformation and its effects on the political economy. In the US, Abraham Lincoln’s antebellum Republican Party built its anti-slavery platform upon the same conclusions — that wage labor was hardly an improvement over slave labor.
Abolishing slavery was seen as a way of disciplining capital, improving the prospects of self-employment, in part by making available to workers the land cultivated by slaves. Declared Lincoln in 1859, “The world is agreed that labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied. There is no dispute upon this point. From this point, however, men immediately diverge. Much disputation is maintained as to the best way of applying and controlling the labor element. By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital — that nobody labors, unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow, by the use of that capital, induces him to do it. Having assumed this, they proceed to consider whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent; or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far they naturally conclude that all laborers are necessarily either hired laborers, or slaves. They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer, is fatally fixed in that condition for life; and thence again that his condition is as bad as, or worse than that of a slave. This is the mud-sill theory.”
The technological enterprise of today, a cumulative product of advancements from the industrial revolutions, has produced an ever more mechanized, indeed digitized, industry. Within its domain fall raw materials processing, design, manufacturing, logistics, supply chain, transportation, communications, scientific research, medicine and other fields, and systems of production. Organizing these global operations are private power systems such as transnational corporations and other bodies owned by private capital. The owners own and control the capital, executives and the managers develop and disperse orders, and the workers follow said orders. Immaterial under this arrangement are matters of worker autonomy, decision-making and ownership of the value of labor. It then follows obligatorily that the scientific and the technical enterprise is hardly a domain of free and creative discovery and inventive processes deployed to primarily address social needs, but a series of steps that aggressively seek to mutilate our capacities for profitable ends.
Barring some upper management professionals, the majority of the minds and bodies that construct and operate the technological enterprise are to merely execute the decisions of the managers inside the command economy, the private enterprise. What results may aesthetically appear as socially cooperative human behavior striving to advance technology through deliberation, sober reflection and rational engagement, but is instead socially coordinated human behavior, striving to first satisfy the pursuit of the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind” by regimenting the scientific and technical enterprise to the drumbeat of the owners.
Amazon’s development of AWS Oil and Gas against unimportant dissenting workers taking climate action, Apple’s reckless obsolescence and repair practices that harm the broader society by abusing natural resources and cheating consumers, and the industry’s systematic surveillance and control of workers are but a few illustrations of the drumbeat. Among many great tragedies here is the abject manipulation of Smith’s work to build intellectual scaffolding for such desires of the modern masters. Ignored is Smith’s pre-capitalist and egalitarian vision of challenging absolute power that undermined autonomy, and replacing it is a yarn spun to support the sweeping control of faceless masses operating the technical enterprise. Chanting the wonders of the markets are also those who lionize the entrepreneurial owners and billionaire investors; presumably after their daily bible studies of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan. As the doctrine goes, the tech billionaires show us the light with their ostensible genius and accumulated wealth, and it is their superior intellect that has elevated them to that stature. Conversely, those who are not to attain such glory are deficient.
For an enterprise that deems itself innovative, it sure can regurgitate unimaginative fables; in this case, tales repeated throughout history to justify hierarchy. As Smith observed, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” To echo Elon Musk, “Adam Smith [for the win].”
Replacing the possibility of a democratic and prudent scientific and technical enterprise is the reality of one dedicated to generating obedient, coordinated workforces with increasing efficiency, and the fanatic accumulation of wealth with increasing ferocity. Upholding such an order are hierarchical relations imposed upon the otherwise innately free, distilling them into their role of workers. Fantastical tales of billionaire supremacy, market efficiency, meritocracy and the approaching technological salvation serve as the glue for the enterprise, the fumes of which induce consent among the participants. In this lies another secular religion that steers the ostensibly intelligent and rational endeavor of technical development. By submitting to it, those that design and build our technologies, the workforce, produce another tragedy.
Rocker noted, “The growth of technology at the expense of human personality, and especially the fatalistic submission with which the great majority surrender to this condition, is the reason why the desire for freedom is less alive among men today and has with many of them given place to a desire for economic security. This phenomenon need not appear so strange, for our whole evolution has reached a stage where nearly every man is either ruler or ruled; sometimes he is both. By this the attitude of dependence has been greatly strengthened, for a truly free man does not like to play the part of either ruler or the ruled.” Vehemently disagreeing with this view and projecting the guiding ethos of the rulers upon the entire population, economist and Nobel laureate James Buchanan had claimed in 1975, “Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves.”
Continuing his analysis of wage slavery and abject slavery, Lincoln had declared to his audience in Milwaukee a century earlier than Buchanan, “I have so far stated the opposite theories of Mud-Sill and free labor without declaring any preference of my own between them. On an occasion like this I ought not to declare any. I suppose, however, I shall not be mistaken, in assuming as a fact, that the people of Wisconsin prefer free labor.”
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared in 1883, “Experience demonstrates that there may be a wages of slavery only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.”