The right to repair during a pandemic
Medical technology companies should work hand in hand with the global community of amateur repairmen who are helping critical life-saving teams in this emergency continue to operate where they are needed.
Entropy is not just a word; it is the second law of thermodynamics: the idea that things tend to chaos and breakup. It is because the right to repair is close to our hearts: fixing things is nothing more than the embodiment of an ancient struggle to establish order in chaos, to keep deterioration and collapse at bay.
It is no coincidence that farmers are at the forefront of the right to repair. People who live in rural and sparsely populated areas have to defend themselves when entropy visits their tools. Farmers can’t wait for a part or a technician to arrive for days – they have to do what they can while the sun is shining. From the beginning of agriculture, farmers have had to make and adapt their tools, and workshops and forges are stamps of life in the country.
The coronavirus has given us a taste of what life is like for farmers and other populations living far from repair shops and spare parts. With global chains in chaos and entire cities in quarantine, broken things are not going to be able to be repaired unless you do it yourself.
Luckily for us, we still have the internet, which is full of instructions to repair (including the massive iFixit repository, entire of guides to fixing everything) and we have more access to tools than at any time in history, something that includes, for some machines that make tools, such as laser cutters and 3D printers.
They have already begun to play a vital role in the pandemic. A hospital in Brescia (Italy) reported that it was able to rehabilitate an oxygen mask for a ventilator with the help of local entrepreneurs who brought their 3D printers to the site, designed a part there and printed it. This put a life-saving machine back into operation.
This story is a mixture of a modern miracle and solidarity in a crisis, but it also hides things that happen below the surface.
It turns out that the reason the part had to be designed from scratch is that the original manufacturer didn’t want to collaborate on the project. One of the people involved in this task said he was threatened with a lawsuit for infringing patents; Other contributors differ on this point, but they all agree that the company did not want to share the design files. And, threatening or not, the original designer of the piece insists that he will not distribute these documents.
Around the world, there is a shortage of fans and parts for them. And at the same time, the world’s largest manufacturer (China) is operating less than half a machine. While online communities are collaborating on multiple plans to design open hardware for fans and other pandemic-related technologies, the most crucial thing they and companies can do is work together to keep existing technologies working.
Doing things right on this project is essential and challenging. The closure of supply chains has revealed the fragility of the manufacturing systems that we have created and that cover great distances to organize around production centres. This design was published as a critical flaw.
The growth in open hardware and parts design for medical equipment during this pandemic represents the urgent need to decentralize and distribute the ability to produce critical items in our world.
But just as these distributed efforts lower the risks of troubled health systems, they can also create their dangers. The best way to ensure that emergency repairs and modifications to medical equipment are safe is for manufacturers to collaborate with these community technicians. This is the only way: We cannot leave hospitals without supplies or sitting on damaged equipment until the emergency passes.
The very nature of emergency medicine implies that front-line professionals must make decisions about how to keep equipment that is not operating well well functional. Even under normal circumstances, there are not always sources to find spare parts and skilled labour to make repairs.
The right person to authorize an emergency repair, and who knows if this manoeuvre guarantees the operation of the equipment, is the doctor and not the shareholders of the companies that manufacture medical technology or the lawyers who write the terms of service and patent applications.
Right now, we are all a bit like peasants: we live somewhat isolated, with machinery that we cannot afford to leave idle until a distant company repairs it. Today we need these companies to step forward and provide the instructions to fix and technical assistance to the global group of amateur manufacturers who want to help us all endure this calamity.
* This text was originally published on the site of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, under a Creative Commons license, and with this title: