Ugo Vallauri is a co-founder of The Restart Project, a London-based charity fixing our relationship with electronics. By encouraging people to use their electronics longer and collecting data on recurrent product failures, it aims to inspire better design and policy-making around consumer products. He is a Shuttleworth Foundation fellow.
This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted as part of the Humans of the Internet space at MozFest 2017. Browse other interviews and download the original audio version of this conversation via the Humans of the Internet playlist.
Could you start by telling me your name and giving a broad overview of your work, and then perhaps hone in on some projects or areas of interest?
My name is Ugo Vallauri and I am the co-founder of The Restart Project. I’ve been working on this project for the last five years. It’s a nonprofit organization that we’ve created to promote a healthier, more positive, and holistic relationship with the electronics that we use on a daily basis.
We empower people in communities to use the repairing of electronics as a way to learn more about how products are made. What are the tradeoffs between the design of electronics and our ownership of them? How we can take back control of these products by extending their lifespan? How can we prevent unnecessary waste? We must be the ones to decide when to upgrade to a new product — when we need to purchase a new piece of technology versus when we can make the most of what we already have.
What are the tradeoffs between the design of electronics and our ownership of them? How we can take back control of these products by extending their lifespan? How can we prevent unnecessary waste?
This clearly connects with the broader concept of internet health because our access to the internet is increasingly mediated by multiple devices, yet many of these devices that are connected to internet function only for short periods of time — they stop receiving software updates or manufacturers no longer support them. As a result, we are cut out of them and we often end up forgetting about them or throwing them away — assuming that “That’s it! It’s gone!” — while there are alternatives. We should collectively be a lot more vocal about how we need more options.
Thinking about this work, can you give me a specific example of a time you felt a sense of success?
In October 2017, we celebrated five years of our work by throwing an event that we called FixFest, which that might sound familiar to a MozFest audience. FixFest was a global gathering of community repair initiatives from four continents — from Tunisia, to Buenos Aires, to Canada, the United States, obviously London, and across Europe.
We brought together what is turning into a movement. It felt like a very special moment where groups — who speak in different languages and might have started for different reasons or for different motivations — came together and shared their challenges and their successes and made the important step to raise not just awareness but raise the profile of what we stand for.
At that gathering we launched the International Day of Repair and an alliance — OpenRepair.org — that will bring together organizations collecting and sharing data about why products fail. This will allow us to tell better stories about the change we need to see from manufacturers and regulators. So that was a moment where my co-founder, Janet Gunter, and I really felt “Wow, this didn’t exist before.” It was a nice way to summarize all that we’ve been trying to make happen in the last few years.
How about a specific example of a challenge?
Well there is one very early story that I like to remember. Our work is very practical — very hands on. We run community events called Restart Parties where people have an opportunity to learn from each other how to disassemble a product that they’re struggling with and try to repair it with a volunteer who is a bit more knowledgeable and happy to share tips.
One time, someone brought a printer to an event — I believe it was an Epson — and it turned out to be a model that stopped printing because it was programmed to.
One time, someone brought a printer to an event — I believe it was an Epson — and it turned out to be a model that stopped printing because it was programmed to. Not because it was broken but because a small pad [an ink waste detector] filled up, and once it’s full the software tells the printer to say that it can’t print anymore and that you should seek professional support. We had heard about this problem and we found a piece of software that, if installed as a piece of not-legitimate firmware on that printer, would unblock the feature. We installed it and the printer started working perfectly fine again. Obviously, this was a moment of true practical success — and also showed how software controls the hardware that we believe we own.
So, based on decisions made by others that might be sensible — but that also might not be very sensible — we might be losing control over something that we bought that we paid for. We might even have bought extra ink, yet we can’t use it anymore.
That was in the early days of our project and was a massive wakeup call as to whether we should care about whether a product can be disassembled, and also as to why we should care about what kind of software support it comes with our electronics.
What types of products are people bringing to the fairs? I’m envisioning printers, scanners, computers, mobile phones… Anything I’m missing?
Many more things! People obviously can’t bring things like dishwashers and washing machines and fridges because they just can’t and we don’t provide a service where we go through people’s homes. Those items are for the commercial repair sector, which by the way we are very supportive of. In fact, some of the struggles that we face as community repair activists are exactly the same that are experienced by the commercial repair sector.
In fact, some of the struggles that we face as community repair activists are exactly the same that are experienced by the commercial repair sector.
The more manufacturers reduce the amount of support provided to the products that are already on the market the more the job of commercial repair becomes complicated.
So the kind of things we’ve seen, besides the ones you’ve already mentioned, can include things like headphones with a loose wire that can be resoldered or coffee machines that might not even be fully broken but the problem may be a pump inside.
I have an espresso machine with that exact problem and I can’t find anyone to fix it! It’s so frustrating!
You should seek help at a community repair event! There’s a lot of items like that. People focus so much on mobile phones and smart phones. And for those — as well as for laptops actually — there still is a thriving commercial repair sector. Although that is not a reason not bring them to a community repair event, because the focus is a more about collective learning. So you bring a product and then you get involved in the actual act of disassembling and repairing it. You learn that perhaps a certain model is extremely hard to even disassemble, which means if you are a professional it will take you a lot longer and you’ll end up having to charge a lot more for that repair. If you are an amateur, it might mean that you just can’t do it at all — depending on the tools that are required.
For a lot of products, people bring them because there just simply isn’t a commercial avenue to repair them.
For a lot of products, people bring them because there just simply isn’t a commercial avenue to repair them. Often it’s just too far out. Think about lamps, think about lamp switches that you might not be able to fix yourself if you haven’t learned how to do that yet. Think about an iron. Or just cleaning a mouse that you think might be completely gone because the button seems not to be working, yet it turns out that if you open it carefully and you clean it it’s just a matter of a lot of accumulated dust.
There’s a lot to be discovered about how certain things might appear to be broken but actually it’s a matter of maintenance and learning how to better care for the things that we ultimately depend on.
I’ve had some limited experiences with hackerspaces in Canada and the United States. I remember the “Warrantee is Void” stickers people put on their laptops, like a badge of pride to say “I opened up my machine.” But I also noticed these are very male spaces and I had some interactions that were challenging. Have you also experienced that? If so, what kinds of things have you done to mitigate or address that?
That’s a wonderful question because this is something that we think about all of the time. We’re very much aware that the vast majority of our pool of volunteers are men. And, in terms of the people that come to our events, we pride ourselves for being radically open — meaning that everyone is welcome. People of all kinds no matter what level of knowledge they might or might not have. In that respect it’s already quite different from the average hackerspace where, even if you just visit for the open night, unless you’re already fairly knowledgeable you might find yourself a little bit worried that you have to prove that you’re good enough in a sense. I say this with all due respect — I have a lot of respect for that movement.
We’ve been active in trying to foster women’s participation in particular by creating a series of events we call Rosie the Restarter, which are specifically aimed at women and non-binary participants.
We’ve been active in trying to foster women’s participation in particular by creating a series of events we call Rosie the Restarter, which are specifically aimed at women and non-binary participants. These are special trainings for women run by women. I can’t even attend them myself. The only role I can play — and we joke about this — is I can help bring pizza. Then I have to get out of there completely.
Rosie the Restarter events are about creating a safe and comfortable and participatory space for people to learn about free and open source options — how to get Linux on your laptop and show you how it’s much faster as a result, for example, or building a portable radio out of small components, or learning more about security online.
Our goal is to inspire participants to become more active volunteers in our community. Everyone has lots to gain if the community becomes even more diverse. We have succeeded, but there’s a lot more work to be done. We still have a lot more men immediately attracted to the idea of volunteering at events but, in terms of participation, we probably have more women than men that come to learn at the events of how their product can be fixed.
We try hard, but we have to maintain a clear and open stance at all times. Diversity doesn’t just happen as a miracle or because you want to.
As you know this space is called Humans of the Internet. What, for you, is a healthy internet?
A healthy internet for me is one where what happens in front of me is sufficiently transparent: The caveats are known. This is not just about not being tracked. In the cases where I am tracked — potentially for good reasons by web sites that I support — it is done in a way that’s open and transparent so that I am collaborating or being supportive rather than silently being followed without my control. That’s one way to look at it.
In the cases where I am tracked — potentially for good reasons by web sites that I support — it is done in a way that’s open and transparent so that I am collaborating or being supportive…
A healthy internet is also where I have a better understanding of the wider ecosystem and its environmental impact. That includes not just how green is the energy powering that server where the information is streaming from but also realizing that there are gigantic consequences based on the type of device I use to browse the internet and — especially as we get very excited about the multiplication of connected devices —we need to be more collectively aware of the limitations and the challenges in keeping all these devices sufficiently up to speed. Otherwise we will just keep upgrading connected thermostat after connected thermostat.
… there are gigantic consequences based on the type of device I use to browse the internet…
We have a wonderful, super-connected world — but it’s coming at a huge waste cost. So a healthy internet is about the internet as infrastructure. The diversity of content is crucial — we should build an internet that represents the true nature of the humanity using it in it — but it’s also crucial to become much more aware of the risks around the proliferation of billions of connected devices and with very very short lifespans.
One of the things I remember reading about when I was trying to understand the internet of things was an issue around business models. For phones there is a business model that makes it worthwhile for the vendor to send you firmware updates. But for a low-cost piece of equipment how would you even add the firmware update — and it’s not worthwhile for the company to produce updates. So if there is some kind of vulnerability you’re stuck.
That’s specifically because we apply the same business model. We don’t see the durability of the product or service as negotiable. Yet the moment that durability is no longer negotiable, new business models can emerge. Subscriptions for example could very well work: you’d buy a product and then every year you might buy a small software update. This is the same model that was used for car GPS navigation devices — after two years, you’d buy a new map pack.
The moment that durability is no longer negotiable, new business models can emerge.
This can happen for the internet or things as long as we make it happen. We can’t say that the model can’t exist because the product is so cheap — that means accepting that the wasteful model is the only way forward. We need to be bold and create business models where support and durability is embedded in the value proposition. These new models are not compatible with the idea that your connected device has to go because it’s too expensive for the manufacturer to create a software update.
It is true that it is expensive to support products, so we should question business models for manufacturers and makers: How many products can you make and distribute if you then have to support software for an extended period of time? Maybe it’s more sensible to manufacture a smaller range and extend the level of support on this product. We have to challenge that.
Or, who might you partner with to support your product?
Exactly. And keep in mind that the more layers that exist the more complicated it becomes. One very technical example is mobile phones. Particularly on the Android side, there’s a very complicated interplay between Google, the device manufacturer, and the network operator.
This means that when the operating system is no longer supported you cannot install an alternative — and the fact that you’re prevented from doing that is a completely unclear and not-communicated limitation imposed by the network operator.
For example, we recently heard shocking stories of how some phones distributed by specific network operators in the UK come with the bootloader blocked. This means that when the operating system is no longer supported you cannot install an alternative — and the fact that you’re prevented from doing that is a completely unclear and not-communicated limitation imposed by the network operator. So ther are many layers and more clarity and transparency and openness ultimately is needed to help people make more informed decisions about what they buy.
What you point to something that gives you hope or a sense of optimism about the future of the internet?
The fact that when I speak to individuals we tend to agree — no matter what questionable company they be working for. There’s a lot of common sense that we all subscribe to when it comes to more openness and transparency and being more in control of the contextual information that is kept hidden or not fully transparent.
My hope is that we can build a stronger narrative collaboratively, which can then spill over to the larger players that currently are not collaborating sufficiently in making an open and healthier internet.
…ultimately there are engineers that create these hard-to-repair black boxes — and they would like them to be more repairable
I am an optimist by nature, otherwise I don’t think I’d be doing the work I do. For example, ultimately there are engineers that create these hard-to-repair black boxes — and they would like them to be more repairable. It’s about convincing their employers they should change some of the design briefs so that products are thought of in a different way. Similarly, the internet can be built in a more respectful and plural way so that its more open for everyone.
It seems to me that that could be a selling point. You could appeal to these values as part of your value proposition.
Absolutely. If that is done in a truly genuine way — and you can tell when it is more than just a marketing afterthought — a lot of people will stick with a company or product and support them. If you show that you are offering more than the bare minimum and that you’re doing it because you truly believe this is the way forward then there is a massive amount of space for the growth for such initiatives.
When I listen to the examples you’ve been giving around the printer or the mobile operator there’s an aspect to it that feels nasty and manipulative. Those are not the kind of companies most people would want to do business with.
Exactly. At times there might be legitimate reasons for some of those choices. It would be great if those reasons were explained in clear terms so that we can talk about this. But, more often than not, choices are made without full disclosure specifically to reduce chances of someone regaining ownership over a specific piece of product.
I wonder sometimes whether the people making such decisions personally fully subscribe to them. Engaging in some of these conversations — with humans one-by-one if need be — is what’s needed to change some of the narrative and would lead to a more open and transparent web.
What are some of the things that you might point to that worry you about the future of the internet?
I am very worried by how everything gravitates around social media and how no one seems to organically browse anymore. Everything comes from either a tweet or a Facebook post. People have lost the ability to like see the internet as a place where you make your own searches and you find your content.
I find it quite scary that those hubs are filtering what people perceive the internet to be about. There was a time when this wasn’t the case and I think we need to look toward a time where this won’t be the case again. This is well beyond my direct work, but I see a problem with how most content has to go through these highly proprietary, highly commercial networks and at the same time how each project and organization and person, sadly, invests heavily on making themselves look particularly good and fit to purpose on those networks. I find that problematic. Ultimately it’s as if there are pages liking each other rather than individuals engaging in real honest conversations.
Ultimately it’s as if there are pages liking each other rather than individuals engaging in real honest conversations.
Also, I’m increasingly worried about the difference between who makes the internet and the people that actually use it. This is about bias. There’s a wonderful campaign called Whose Knowledge. I love it because it’s inspiring us to understand that while half of the world is online the people actually writing content for the web is a very small minority — very white and very male just like me. We take the internet as our main source of information and it further multiplies our existing biases. That worries me a lot.
What brought you to MozFest? How did you end up here in this space?
Janet attended MozFest five years ago and loved the vibrant community and the mix between speaker sessions and unconference sessions. It was a unique way to engage with people and this vast, fluid ecosystem.
We decided that we needed to be here because issues around the way we access the internet in terms of environmental sustainability and devices was under-represented in conversations around the future of the web. This is still true today and it’s great that we have had a chance to contribute to this conversation. Particularly with the current focus on the internet of things, there is an opportunity to connect concerns around privacy, security, and safety with broader issues around the material sustainability of all of it all.
We decided that we needed to be here because issues around the way we access the internet in terms of environmental sustainability and devices was under-represented in conversations around the future of the web.
Also it’s a wonderful festival. It truly represents a great snapshot of what’s happening in the struggle for a better web, so it’s great to contribute to it.
That’s all the questions I have my for you. Is there anything you want to ask or say?
I just want to say that ultimately some of the issues we’re discussing — certainly pertinent to my work but also about the struggle for a more open web — are huge issues. It’s easy to feel disempowered when you see the little you can do versus the extent to what needs happening. But my experience in doing bottom-up community repair activities tells me that everyone can contribute and — even if it might seem small — actually it’s one step towards regaining our voice. I would inspire everyone to do their bit, contribute what they can, and collaboratively together we can do this.