4S Presentation, Denver, USA

Temporalities of repair work: the ‘lives’ of mobile phones in downtown Kampala, Uganda

Studies of repair highlight how technological objects are not fixed at the point of production. They have socio-material lives and are always in the world, open to wear, error, and malfunction. In downtown Kampala, mobile phones present to technicians not only with fractured material connections, but troubles that have recourse to a wider social, political and economic ecology. This presentation explores breakdown as a precarious moment in the life of a device using ethnographic examples from mobile phone repair workshops in downtown Kampala.

Although repair is a canonical example of situated action, it also reveals longer temporalities of technological change. I argue that broken things are ontologies in transformation. In the hands of the customer, the phone no longer performs as ‘working’. Often, repair technicians successfully intervene to restore the phone to functionality. They do so by crafting new connections. If repair fails, the phone may not hold together as a phone at all. It may be sold back to technicians as a collection of spare parts, or discarded as waste. Ideas around lives, livings and lifetimes may be generatively rethought to account for these transitory ontologies. Rather than the singular, linear curve of the product life cycle, I am interested in the multiple lives that phones may have across their lifetimes. I explore the role that Kampalan technicians’ repair practices play in extending the duration of devices, as they reshape socio-material connections around the body of the device and in their own lives beyond the workbench.

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