A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations.
This is not an article about how the world is breaking down. We all see it, of course: the sudden collapse of dams and bridges; the slow deterioration of power grids and sewer systems; the hacked data, broken treaties, rigged elections. Infrastructures fail everywhere, all the time. Some people will even tell you that it’s okay if the Carnegie- and Roosevelt-era foundations of America crumble. Rather than fix the systems we have, we can stand by for the imminent rollout of autonomous vehicles and blockchain-based services (and let Amazon take over the public libraries). Values like innovation and newness hold mass appeal — or at least they did until disruption became a winning campaign platform and a normalized governance strategy. Now breakdown is our epistemic and experiential reality.
Maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause.
What we really need to study is how the world gets put back together. I’m not talking about the election of new officials or the release of new technologies, but rather the everyday work of maintenance, caretaking, and repair. Steven Jackson’s now-classic essay “Rethinking Repair,” written in the before-time — way back in 2014 — proposes that we “take erosion, breakdown, and decay, rather than novelty, growth, and progress, as our starting points” in considering relations between society and technology. His sober exercise in “broken world thinking” is matched with “deep wonder and appreciation for the ongoing activities by which stability … is maintained, the subtle arts of repair by which rich and robust lives are sustained against the weight of centrifugal odds.”
In many academic disciplines and professional practices — architecture, urban studies, labor history, development economics, and the information sciences, just to name a few — maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause. This is an exciting area of inquiry precisely because the lines between scholarship and practice are blurred. To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.
This is necessarily a collective endeavor. In 2016, the historians of technology Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel roused a research network called The Maintainers. Playing off Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution , the Maintainers adopted a humorous tagline: “how a group of bureaucrats, standards engineers, and introverts made digital infrastructures that kind of work most of the time.” They held two celebrated conferences and published essays in Aeon and The New York Times , which in turn inspired dozens of journal articles, conference panels, exhibitions, dissertations, and workshops. At the first Festival of Maintenance, held recently in London, speakers addressed topics like social housing, facilities management, self-care, tool libraries, and the emotional labor of volunteer work.
Before maintenance can challenge innovation as the dominant paradigm, we’ll need to build a bigger public stage.
Maintenance may be a timely subject, but it isn’t new. Ancient humans had to fix their aqueducts and mud-brick dwellings. Karl Marx was concerned with “the maintenance and reproduction of the working class” as a condition of capitalism. And Russell and Vinsel identify maintenance as “a near-constant topic in the prescriptive literature that arose between the 1870s and 1920s around new technology,” from telephones to roads. As we pick up the theme, we have to recognize that maintenance and repair have always been shaped by the political, social, cultural, and ecological contexts of technology (and, more broadly, techne or craft). More than that: we have to know the history of what we’re up against. Russell and Vinsel trace a genealogy of fetishized innovation, from 19th-century industrialism through the age of invention, postwar consumer tech, Cold War R&D labs, and the 1980 Bahy-Dole Act — which enabled federally-funded researchers to patent their inventions — and on to today’s Silicon Valley.
Before maintenance can challenge innovation as the dominant paradigm, we’ll need to build a bigger public stage. The current discourse is tilted toward economists, engineers, and policymakers — and they’re a pretty demographically homogeneous group. Given the degree of brokenness of the broken world (and the expense of fixing it), we need all maintainers to apply their diverse disciplinary methods and practical skills to the collective project of repair. Jackson proposes that repair-thinking be considered a distinct epistemology. Fixers, he says, “know and see different things — indeed, different worlds — than the better-known figures of ‘designer’ or ‘user.’” Breakdown has “world-disclosing properties.” Similarly, Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift identify breakdown and failure as “the means by which societies learn to reproduce,” because the repair of broken systems always involves elements of “adaptation and improvisation.”
So what can we learn about how these concepts have been taken up in various fields? How can science and technology scholars build more bridges with architects, librarians, and other professionals engaged with stewardship? I’d say that if we want to better understand and apply maintenance as a corrective framework, we need to acknowledge traditions of women’s work, domestic and reproductive labor, and all acts of preservation and conservation, formal and informal. At the same time, we have to avoid romanticizing maintenance and repair. We can learn from feminist critiques of the politics of care (particularly the reliance on poorly paid immigrants and people of color) and look to maintenance practices outside the Western world.
Here I aim to show how these different disciplinary approaches converge across four scales of maintenance. In “Rust,” we’ll look at the repair of large urban infrastructures, from transportation systems to social networks. In “Dust,” we consider architectural maintenance alongside housework and other forms of caretaking in the domestic and interior realms. In “Cracks,” we study the repair of objects, from television sets to subway signs to cell phones. Finally, in “Corruption,” we turn to the curators who clean and maintain data — a resource that fuels the operation of our digital objects, our networked architectures, and our intelligent cities.
People and data work across these scales of maintenance, and they do so within particular cultures and geographies, and through different subjectivities. Throughout the essay, I’ll highlight work by artists who can help us see these other perspectives and imagine how maintenance makes itself apparent within the world.
Rust: Urban Repair
Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers releases an “infrastructure report card,” which reliably generates a wave of headlines about the poor condition of our public works. In 2017 the United States earned a disappointing-but-not-surprising D+ overall. Water systems scored a D (six billion gallons of treated water are lost every day); dams, a D (seventeen percent are highly hazardous); and roads, a D (one out of every five miles is in poor condition). Transit earned a D- (in part, for the $90 billion backlog of maintenance projects). Why such neglect? At a forum hosted by the Brookings Institution (naturally!), economist Larry Summers gave the usual explanation: “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.” His interlocutor, Edward Glaeser (see, it’s always the economists!), agreed: “you get a lot of press for a new project. … You don’t get a lot of press for maintaining the HVAC system in the school, even though that’s more socially valuable.”
Yet this macroeconomic view obscures the phenomenal reality that the world is being fixed all around us, every day. Window washers work high above the street and cable layers below it. Bridge painters combat salt air and exhaust fumes. “Modern urban dwellers are surrounded by the hum of continuous repair and maintenance,” Thrift observes. We hear the chatter of pneumatic drills, the drone of street sweepers, and, in the city’s peripheral zones, the clang and hydraulic hiss of auto repair and waste management. Even the cacophony of a construction site — a new building going up on a vacant lot — can be a sign of repair. Planner Douglas Kelbaugh proposes that we think of infill construction as a mending of the urban fabric.
Meanwhile, caregivers, therapists, clergy, social workers, and other outreach agents attend to the city’s social infrastructures. Sociologists Tom Hall and Robin James Smith regard these “carers” as instruments of “urban kindness,” but we should be wary of conflating care and altruism. Geographer Jessica Barnes warns against the romanticism inherent in the revival of maintenance studies. Scholars have elevated certain types of underappreciated work and have framed repair contra consumption and waste, but in many settings, especially outside the post-industrialized West, the motivations behind urban and ecological maintenance are more complex.
Where infrastructures are absent or unreliable, the gaps are filled by illegal water taps, grafted cables, pirate radio stations, backyard boreholes … Many regions have their own distinctive ‘repair ecologies.’
Around the world, many formal infrastructures are products of colonialism, and imperial legacies persist through global financing. “Rehabilitation” efforts funded by the World Bank and IMF reflect a “tendency for neglected maintenance expenditures to be capitalized through ‘new build’ projects.” Maintenance is thus entangled with plans to open or protect access to markets or resources. Some development projects are stalled by local resistance or administrative problems; others leave marginalized and disenfranchised people off the grid. And where infrastructures are absent or unreliable, the gaps are filled by illegal water taps, grafted cables, pirate radio stations, backyard boreholes, shadow networks, and so forth. Many regions have their own distinctive “repair ecologies,” like the underground market in Cuba for el paquete semanal , a weekly supply of new digital content circulated offline, via hard drive, in order to circumvent the nation’s insecure internet. This, too, is a kind of maintenance. Graham and Thrift argue that in the Global South, “the very technosocial architectures of urban life are heavily dominated by, and constituted through, a giant system of repair and improvisation.” Developing regions also become offshore “back lots” for wealthier nations’ abject maintenance work, like breaking up rusty ships and processing e-waste. As Jackson puts it, some places are “more on the receiving end of globalization than others.