Google Thinks We Can’t Repair Toasters?
Tech News

Google Thinks We Can’t Repair Toasters?

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We open on a family desperate for frozen pizza. The toaster oven is broken. And what’s worse is that a knob (yes, a knob!) has fallen off. The children of the family look longingly at their pizza, which is frozen solid—then it spontaneously combusts. They may not survive the night.

Not to worry! Google is here to save the day. The father of these hungry children (who clearly takes his patriarchal responsibilities seriously) quickly buys a new toaster in seconds flat by using Google’s “Shop With Google” function. And just like that, the pizza has transformed into a delectable golden brown feast, being pulled out of a toaster shiny enough to do a TikTok makeup tutorial with. America’s youth will be fed for time immemorial, for this beautiful toaster shall provide them with sustenance.

This is the story told by Google’s 30-second advertisement (which is frankly very well done) for their shopping feature. The company’s advert has made it clear that toaster ovens don’t last like they used to. True! And they were so close—my gripe, however, is that their solution is to buy something new instead of to repair the toaster oven.

Convenience Has Hidden Costs

I’ll say up front that Google isn’t close to the most anti-repair company in the world. In fact, they’ve got a mixed record. On the one hand, the Google Pixel 7 was ranked one of the most difficult phones to repair. On the other, Google has done things like offer parts for Pixel phones and extend the lifespans of their Chromebook laptops (albeit in the face of withering criticism for tanking school budgets with needless hardware replacement costs).

My problem is with how Google’s advertisement frames “repair vs. replace” and how that sits in our broader consumer culture. In marketing, we are constantly sold the idea that convenience is a 100% positive feature—it is only good. But just because you can conveniently get a new product doesn’t mean that coughing up the money to purchase a replacement machine is better for you (or the planet) than fixing a malfunctioning thing you already own. Individual consumers might not see a problem with a 3- to 5-year lifespan for toasters—which used to last decades. But that shift places a collective burden on society.

The toaster discourse offers us a glimpse at a broader conversation about how we should relate to the things we own and how long they should last. There are many ways that right to repair is trying to increase the longevity of products through part availability, information, design requirements, and extending producer responsibilities.

What struck me about the Google toaster commercial is that the message is subtle. Even though I’m a repair advocate, I didn’t initially register its anti-repair implications. This makes me realize that in a world where information is being beamed into our faces for large swathes of the day, it’s hard to stay vigilant against all the subtle and unsubtle “consume! consume! consume!” memes floated our way.

While the sad-looking toaster might be more reliable, it’s often less shiny and doesn’t feel as good as buying something new—at least in the moment. And of course, it’s not just toasters. At this hyper-consumption time of the year, we’re constantly inundated with reminders to buy new and discard old televisions, smartphones, cars, laptops, appliances; together, they take a real toll on our world.

More News

  • New York’s right to repair law takes effect December 28: Manufacturers like Apple will soon be required to provide parts, tools, and guides for device repairs to consumers and independent repair shops. The New York law was signed in December of 2022, marking a significant shift from the current practice of limiting repair resources to authorized shops, making repairs more convenient and affordable, Consumer Reports writes. The New York law applies to electronic device manufacturers doing business in the state, but documentation may also become widely available online as a result of the law, benefiting consumers beyond New York state.
  • Deere disease spreads to trains: Agricultural equipment maker John Deere is notorious for the steps it has taken in the last two decades to lock down its equipment and lock out farmers from even basic maintenance and upkeep. Other manufacturers have taken notice. As Hackaday reports, the Polish-made Newag electric passenger trains have been observed locking up when serviced by non-Newag workshops. At the heart of the problem are the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) which control all aspects of a modern rail traction system. The Newag PLCs were observed returning bogus error codes when GPS signals detected the train had visited a third-party workshop.
  • Free Software Foundation cites the importance of repair: “The Right to Repair movement is one of the most successful movements of digital autonomy we have seen in many years here at the Free Software Foundation (FSF),” writes Zoë Kooyman. “We’re excited to see where things head from here, since the Right to Repair and the free software movement are closely linked.” Appliances and other personal technology are “accelerating their pace in a transition from being purely mechanical toward becoming a technology that relies on software. This means that any meaningful notion of repair has to include user rights over that software. Without the freedom to run, modify, distribute, and share the software ourselves (i.e. software freedom), there will be no widespread right to repair.”
  • iPhone SEs declared “vintage” and lose support: Apple’s iPhone SE and second-gen iPad Pro are now labeled as “vintage,” losing Apple’s repair and software update support, TechTimes reports. Mickey Beats Solo3 headphones also join the “vintage” list, while Powerbeats 2 and Solo2 Wireless headphones are now “obsolete.” The declaration doesn’t extend to France, where some newer Apple devices remain eligible for service and parts for 7 years. Apple’s policy is to label devices as “vintage” after 5 years and “obsolete” after 7 years, with exceptions for MacBooks.