Nuancing the working / broken binary: stories of broken objects and changing relations in the mobile repair workshops of Kampala, Uganda.

I want to talk about practices that are on the fringes of what we might consider “repair”. How can these practices open up our thinking?

Sometimes breakages in the repair shops were material: broken screens and circuits are fractures within the physical components of the device. But brokenness doesn’t always inhere in the object – it can also be relational.

Handsets that travel to Kampala are often locked to a particular telecoms provider. If a phone works in London, but doesn’t in Kampala, is it working or broken? Kampalan technicians can unlock phones, by drawing on software and hardware tools produced by “hackers”.

Brokennness can be transient and difficult to replicate. Sometimes it is located in the relationship of use between customer and device. One phone came into a repair shop with a broken mouthpiece – but the technician found that the problematic part was working. He put it aside for 10 minutes, gave it back to his customer and got paid. A working phone had left the workshop, but a repair had not been completed.

These stories show how the broken phone presents a degree of uncertainty to the technician. How do we think and talk about this indeterminacy? One way technicians respond to uncertainty is through improvisation. Repair is fundamentally an improvisational, situated activity.

What happens when a repair fails? Isn’t the point where a phone is “beyond repair” also to some extent relational? Resources for mobile phone repair are not contained within a single technician, but instead spread across a whole culture that encompasses tools, parts and friends, and which extends far beyond downtown Kampala.

When replacement parts are not available, one technician specializes in beautiful copper wire circumventions of integrated circuits, called ‘jumpers’.
Technicians without these skills (or without the inclination to get them) visit his shop for these kinds of repairs. Although this form of repair seems to be local – indeed embodied in the technician – online resources are also used to highlight where to make connections. When circulating artefacts such as mobile phones travel, repair solutions often travel also, through different networks.