Right to repair shouldn't exist – not because it's wrong but because it's so obviously right

Gatekeeper capitalism at its most odious


Column There is much that people of breeding and taste can and should despise in gaming. Some of it comes from the angry undertow of sullen boyish aggression that pervades the over-muscled, over-weaponised first-person-shooter end of the market, where it is impossible to pick up the controller without hearing your mother tell you to tidy your room. Then there's the regrettable aesthetics of the custom gaming PC sector, a curious amalgam of macho metal vibe and sugar-rush amphetamine-acid LED colour cycling.

Then there's the more-grunt-is-more-better vibe. For anyone of ZX Spectrum vintage where animating a 16x16 pixel two colour character without clashing attributes was the height of technical achievement, the modern gaming GPU is beyond comprehension. Take the GeForce RTX 3060 Ti, which, with 17.4 billion transistors, has as many as a quarter of a million ZX Spectrums and performance to match. Impressive, but do you get a quarter of a million times as much fun, or is it gratuitous penile substitution therapy? Do you really need all that?

California doesn't think so. It and five other liberal tree-hugging states, cognisant that all the trees are burning down, has banned the sale of muscle micros like the Alienware Aurora Ryzen Edition R10 Gaming Desktop from Dell. Sporting, as they say in hardware reviews, the self-same RTX 3060, it contravenes new energy standards that say what's reasonable for consumer PCs. Juggernaut joyboxes? Not so much.

Of course, the ardent pixeleer will be able to build their own obscenity from components, or get a pal to buy and ship a pre-built one, and it's hard to argue that there is no such thing as too much. But the really interesting part of this is that the legislation is surprisingly finessed. It's not just a "nothing above X Watts" blanket ban; the nature of the PC, its expandability, its use case and much else are taken into account so there's quite a complex profile to follow if you're going to sail close to the wind.

Frankly, this is great. Radio regulations have been this complex and a thousand times more for ages, and as you may have noticed it hasn't hurt the market for smartphones. OEMs have to take responsibility for knowing in detail how their kit consumes power, and will start to pay attention to more than one headline figure. With IT power consumption growing exponentially in a power market that's showing only linear growth overall, it's precisely where attention is needed.

It's also a vital lesson for another area of regulatory innovation – the right to repair. This is one of those ideas that shouldn't exist, not because it's wrong but because it's so obviously right that having to legislate means something is very badly broken. Looking at the corporate lobbying against it, it's that glorious gatekeeper capitalism at it again. Capture a market and you can control it to extract maximum cash regardless of any other considerations. You can't fix that gizmo because it impacts our bottom line.

Everywhere this thinking is in effect, there is corruption of the market and corruption of consumer interests. Repair saves money, saves resources, encourages valuable skills, spreads the benefits of technology further through a criminally unequal society, and is fun. In general, legislators have been in favour, and the normal response is to mandate the availability of service information, the guaranteed supply of spares, and the forbidding of "authorised service only" restrictions. Good, but not good enough.

Imagine a right-to-repair principle that goes further, that mandates that equipment be designed for repair. The industry knows how to do this, it does it often enough where reliability is of primary importance – modularity, built-in test equipment (BITE) for diagnosis, access-friendly fastenings, self-documenting circuit boards, the lot. There's no benefit in having something you can repair in theory if it's built like an alien chastity belt. We have billions of transistors to play with, it's not as if putting in the smarts to aid the repairer is going to cost much. The whole thing could be tied into the energy cost of production of the equipment, to sharpen perceptions of what things really cost and how long they should live for. No reason regulations can't do double duty.

It may seem a lot to ask for, in a world where "Oops. Something went wrong!" is seen as an acceptable error message. Ten years ago, mandating complex energy requirements for household items seemed just as bonkers – remember Dyson whipping up anger at the EU regulation limiting vacuum cleaner power? That wasn't a limit on power, that was an exercise in improving efficiency, which other manufacturers were happy to follow.

They'd be less happy to follow a Make Things Properly Fixable law – Dell probably isn't actually happy at having an illegal Alienware box – but tough. They can afford it, we need it, let's fix it. ®

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