Dispatch 03 — Nov 20, 2019


In Montréal for the last few years we’ve had a lot of what we call “construction,” i.e. road work, infrastructure work, but also a few programs helping people renovate their homes, which means even more scaffolding and more sidewalk detours. So when walking or driving (especially driving), you’re always bumping into detours and orange cones. “Damned construction, there’s construction everywhere.” But of course for the most part no one is constructing anything or building something new, it’s all repairs, it’s all maintenance.

That’s something we’ve been hearing more of as we realize everything that’s not working right, everything that our societies will need to do differently. We’ll be hearing a lot more still about maintenance as consumerism needs to slow down, as cities and all infrastructures need to prepare for, and periodically get back up from, existing and coming climate-caused catastrophes.

Products need to go back to being repairable, infrastructure needs to be fixed, ecosystems need to be taken care of and repaired, species protected so they can climb back from the brink. Care, the maintaining of ourselves through old age, will also become a massive task for societies. It’s not something we completely realize yet, but maintenance will be one of the key topics of coming decades.

I feel I also need to mention that the articles and resources below—though many mention non-western work and ideas—are all pretty much taken from western sources; do share your people and articles from elsewhere if you have them. At the same time, I’m permitting myself this somewhat narrow perspective (it’s also “things I've read,” not proper research) because the theme of “maintenance” as it’s been surfacing in the west over the last few years comes quite a bit from a reaction to the techno-utopian sphere and against consumerism, both issues largely created in the west, and things “we” need to be the first to address. However, a lot of the useful paths for better caring and stewardship of nature, to give one example, will indeed need to come from non-western, usually much older, practices and thinking. And maintenance and fixing stuff is also already, often by necessity, much stronger in the global south, from Indian jugaad, to Cuban repair culture, to African repair and reinvention. I need to come back to this topic in a future Dispatch.

Hours Beirut

One of the strongest signals around maintenance in my networks over the last couple of years was when Martin Thörnkvist announced Hours Beirut; “an intimate three-day conference exploring how maintenance and the act of maintaining can be understood in the context of innovation and creativity.“ The format, location, and speaker selection were excellent.

All the videos are online here. Sadly, I haven’t had the time yet to watch all of them but here are a few quotes from the first one, Lara Houston on What is maintenance? which is a good intro on the topic. Her talk is structured around “four charismatic objects;” the mobile phone, the smart city, the space probe and the John Deere tractor.

[Maintenance is] foundational to social human social and material life. Cleaning, caring, servicing, preserving, prolonging, these are all things that we do to keep our social and material worlds going. Perhaps the most obvious example of maintenance is the fixing of material things but maintenance of course can also refer to wider social and material structures and in the world of research we tend to treat those things together as socio material. […]

I’d also argue that technology is quite a privileged site for attending to maintenance and repair on the one hand the breakdown of technologies is ubiquitous in everyday usage, tech requires repair and I’m sure you’ve all switched something off and switched it back on again. On the other hand maintenance and repair are largely missing from particular narratives around technology think of the smart city for example and one reason for this is simply that we can’t predict what will go wrong when we’re designing something especially a citywide system but there’s also a hefty dose of techno solutionism in the mix.

… so when we exclude maintenance from these visions we’re really excluding a massive suite of productive activity. In an era of planetary and political instability, I’d argue that maintenance and repair practices they really are the details that we need to attend to as we move from one world order to the next, humbly and each little fix at a time. […]

[Quoting Steven J. Jackson] What happens when we take erosion, breakdown, and decay, rather than novelty, growth, and progress as our starting points for thinking through the nature, use, and effects of information technology and new media? An approach that he calls “broken world thinking.”

Why Do People Neglect Maintenance?

The Maintainers is “a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world.” The link above is to an excellent article collecting the multiple explanations that people use to explain why they ignore, or pay too little attention to, maintenance. Highlights eight factors that lead individuals and organizations to neglect maintenance. From cultural myths about innovation to status systems and “growth” and forms of short-termism.

Perhaps foremost among these explanations is the idea that the way we’ve come to think and talk about “innovation” leads us to put off and neglect other activities, including maintenance. … Rather, the ideology of innovation, or innovation-speak, leads us to prioritize creating the new over caring for the old. […]

In many cases today, “technology policy” just means creating new things, not caring for old ones. And engineering education has increasingly come to focus on the need to train students in innovation and entrepreneurship, even though about 70% of engineers work in operations and maintenance. […]

[O]ur culture has become obsessed with economic and other forms of “growth” and that, in a variety of ways, this mindset favors short-term gains that affect maintenance in two ways: 1. It leads us to defer maintenance in the short-term. 2. It leads us to over-build and over-adopt new technologies that increase our maintenance load down the road. […]

While some voices in our culture argue that government is often better at long-term thinking than are businesses, the reality is that electoral politics encourage officials to concentrate on growth and ribbon-cuttings over unglamorous and hard-to-perceive maintenance. […]

The moral “should” is an – at least implicit – point of the idea that infrastructure and some forms of—often gendered—labor are currently “invisible” but should not be.

Why I Am Not a Maker

The always brilliant Deb Chachra arguing that she isn’t a maker, that “making,” as it's been mythologized over the last few years, usually refers to work most associated with men, and is framed as having more value than “non-making,” which happens to include care, most often done by women. This is one of the important points people will have to come to grips with; maintenance and care were always important and will be even more so going forward, that work needs to be properly valued, and the people doing it need to be appreciated, respected, and paid justly.

The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home. […]

When new products are made, we hear about exciting technological innovation, which are widely seen as worth paying (more) for. In contrast, policy and public discourse around caregiving—besides education, healthcare comes immediately to mind—are rarely about paying more to do better, and are instead mostly about figuring out ways to lower the cost. […]

People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like “design learning experiences,” which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I’m actually trying to help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as “making” is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. […]

Rather, I want to see us recognize the work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do valuable work with and for others—above all, the caregivers—whose work isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.

Making as an Act of Caring

The equally brilliant Anab Jain, bounced off Chachra’s piece above, arguing that making can also be an act of caring. In line with my intro, she proposes that we will need the skills and knowledge of makers so that we can find “the means to restore, revive, resurrect, rewire, and reimagine the physical world of consumption we are drowning in.”

I would argue that they are more than makers, they are actually care-givers, who steadfastly push back against the dominant philosophy of planned obsolesce. […]

This deep knowledge of materials embodied within the stuff we use in our daily lives, as well as the numerous tools and techniques of making, is critical to understand the impact the things we use have on our environments. […]

No, they are not just fixing, not just doing some little bodging in the corner, they are mainstream makers. In fact, I would argue that they are more than makers, they are actually care-givers, who steadfastly push back against the dominant philosophy of planned obsolescence. […]

They are quietly shaping the ethos and values of a 21st century maker — adaptive, crafty, anticipatory makers who care deeply about the people and environment around them. And this is the sort of making-as-caring that we need much more of. […]

[L]ets nourish this idea of making as care-giving too, and ensure that the ‘maker-culture’ we build is diverse and inclusive. And in doing so, encourage a relentless inquisitiveness, integrity, and pliancy that it can bring for us, those around us and the environments we live in.

Minimal Maintenance

The essay version of a talk by Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. Really excellent read which ties together maintenance, degrowth, libraries, museums, environmental justice, and architecture. I encourage you to read the whole piece, one of the things that resonated with me is the very first quote below, which frames degrowth not as blanket anti-growth but as a critique of growth as an end in itself. To my mind, this parallels Vaclav Smil in this interview where he talks about not viewing degrowth as something done identically globally but as varying according to each country’s needs. Then, like Smil who says there is “slack” in the system, Mattern cites “many feminist economists” who believe that “degrowth need not entail universal downsizing. Instead, a reduction of those things that are ‘destructive to humans and the ecological foundations of human life’.”

The contemporary “degrowth” movement … isn’t against growth, per se; it calls, instead, for a critique of growth as an end in itself, for the “decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and for the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective.” […]

The Maintainers have emerged in response to these technological and political-economic concerns, many of which overlap with those of the Degrowthers: the waste of planned obsolescence, the environmental effects of unsustainable supply chains, the devaluation of care work, the underfunding of maintenance, and so forth. […]

[A]rtist Teresa Dillon cited environmental humanist Eileen Crist’s call for “pulling back and scaling down,” “welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies and habitats for the sake of a higher, more inclusive freedom and quality of life.” […]

[T]he potential activation of a new post-growth urban “commons”—resources and practices that resist commodification and privatisation, and that prioritise collective creation and public use. […]

Yet the threats imposed by tech’s unlimited growth are both individual and collective: they compromise our personal privacy and mental health, as well as our networked utilities, our geopolitical dynamics, and our global ecologies. […]

Further reading

  • Government is a technology, so fix it like one. “Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently.”
  • Quite adjacent to maintenance, from Sentiers No.100: A World We Built to Burn Quinn Norton on the “technical dept” we’ve accrued over the last few hundreds years, how the climate crisis and ecosystem collapse are making things worse, and on the importance of having a plan “at every level from transnational to individual.” It’s a very good down to earth perspective on the current situation of most countries and probably a good posture to take towards infrastructure, the planet, and the work to be done.
  • Highlights from Festival of Maintenance 2019. “This was an exploration and a celebration of maintenance, repair, stewardship and care. We had speakers talking about what is maintained, who maintains and how, and how the labour of maintenance is resourced.”
  • Repair Acts. “We view repair, care and maintenance as the challenge to move away from the rhetorics of the ‘new’ as a means of progression and innovation. Questioning the lexicon of the ‘smart’ and globally connected, repair, care and maintenance cultures addresses everyday consumption by revealing the geopolitical struggles, labour systems and consequences of our material lives on the environment and other species.”
  • Move slow and break nothing. “And yet, we laud innovators who build new software libraries even while the edifice of our progress disintegrates. Academics are increasingly studying this problem of how society views maintainers (hint: not well). Ultimately though, we are all responsible for these outcomes, and we all need to take the opportunity to reduce complexity and increase reliability for any system we are a part of, whether software or not.”
  • The game Death Stranding is basically about maintenance. ? Death Stranding Review.