Why Fixers Will Save Our Planet


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.


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.

We'll be posting photos and stories from the road, and editing a short documentary film once we return. Keep up with the Fixers documentary on Facebook and here at The Atlantic.

Jump to comments
Presented by

The Fixers is a documentary project about e-waste in Africa, and the repair technicians who turn our unwanted junk into coveted treasures. Produced by Kyle Wiens, screenplay by Brian X. Chen, and photography by Jon Snyder and Justin Fantl.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Technology

Just In