We (re)build our computer systems the way we (re)build our cities: over time, without a plan, on top of ruins (Ellen Ullman)
Maintenance: the gritty upkeep work that keeps the infrastructure of the world running.
One of my favourite examples is the constant rebuilding of the Ise Grand Shrine. Retaining knowledge through constant revision
The Maintainers: the individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things. Related to paid open source, how do we incentivize maintenance?
Is maintenance just the battle against the tragedy of the commons? “Fundamentally, digital infrastructure has a free rider problem. Resources are offered for free, and everybody (whether individual developer or large software company) uses them, so nobody is incentivized to contribute back, figuring that somebody else will step in.” Source
Who are all the maintainers behind the thousands of libraries we depend on each day? Is maintenance a form of Ghost Work?
Innovation is overvalued
“What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”
“These shuttles brought high-tech employees from hip, pricey urban homes to their lush suburban campuses, without exposing them to the inconvenience of public transportation or to the vast populations of the poor and homeless who also call Silicon Valley their home.” -> similar to some concepts in From Counterculture to Cyberculture talking about displacement of people during the ‘back to the land’ movement by the New Communalists
It is crucial to understand that technology is not innovation. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old.
The stalest innovation stories focus on well-to-do white guys sitting in garages in a small region of California, but human beings in the Global South live with technologies too. Which ones? Where do they come from? How are they produced, used, repaired?
Related: Lindy Effect
Third, focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. We need to acknowledge and attribute where we are today to the shoulders of the giants we stand on.
“Feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track.”
Maintenance and Care
“All of the incentives for all the actors are against maintenance. Nobody ever named a maintenance project, nobody ever got recognized for a maintenance project, nobody ever much got blamed for deferring maintenance during the time while they were in office.”
Rust: urban infrastructures
Outsiders sometimes make the mistake of focusing on the rusty bridges and broken pipes — the “defective objects” themselves — whereas local fixers are more concerned with “the social and political relationships in which [those objects are] embedded.”
As Nikhil Anand writes in Hydraulic City, “The maintenance of water infrastructures binds residents, plumbers, engineers, and politicians in an (uneven) system of “hydraulic citizenship.””
We should always ask: what, exactly, is being maintained? “Is it the thing itself,” Graham and Thrift ask, “or the negotiated order that surrounds it, or some ‘larger’ entity?” Often the answer is all of the above.
We should also remember that the preservation of our world — the human one — is sometimes at odds with caring for the ecological context. Perhaps not every road should be repaired. Geographer Caitlin DeSilvey encourages us to embrace entropy within the built world, to ask ourselves for whom we engage in preservation, and to consider cultivating an acceptance of “curated decay” where appropriate.
Dust: domestic maintenance, housework, care work
Maintaining life — that’s a big job. Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher define care as “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair ‘our world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.
We care for things not because they produce value, but because they already have value.
Aryn Martin, Natasha Myers, and Ana Viseu propose that a critical practice of care would “pay attention to the privileged position of the caring subject, wary of who has the power to care, and who or what tends to get designated the proper or improper objects of care.”
Cracks: repair of objects
“repair not only extends the use value of objects but becomes a mechanism of social interaction.” People gather around, watch, and chat. The shop is a space of public pedagogy, an “operating theater” where the repairman opens gadgets, demonstrates technical skills, and perhaps encourages observers to mend rather than discard their own broken things
Corruption: curators who clean and maintain data
Historian Nathan Ensmenger reports that “from the early 1960s to the present, software maintenance costs have represented between 50 and 70 percent of all total expenditures on software development.”
The internal maintenance work isn’t supposed to be visible to end users, who tend to like the idea that they’re working with “raw” data. Yet “data never come as raw,” Plantin observes. “Multiple interventions are always needed before data can be reused.”