title: Maintenance and Care
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). 1 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.” 2
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. 3
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. 4 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. 5 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. 6
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. 7 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.” 8 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.” 9
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. 10
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. 11 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.” 12
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. 13 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. 14
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. 15
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.” 16 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. 17 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.” 18 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.” 19
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.” Barnes reports that Egyptian farmers in the Nile Valley maintain irrigation ditches not just to keep the water flowing, but also to “sustain communal ties with other farmers.” 20 Similar protocols prevail in Nikhil Anand’s Hydraulic City, in which the anthropologist shows how the maintenance of water infrastructures binds residents, plumbers, engineers, and politicians in an (uneven) system of “hydraulic citizenship.” 21 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?” 22 Often the answer is all of the above. Maintenance traverses scales.
Outsiders mistakenly focus on the rusty bridges and broken pipes — the ‘defective objects’ — whereas local fixers are more concerned with social and political relationships.
And if we reverse the lens, we see how the multi-scalar nature of broken systems impedes repair. Consider the New York City subway. Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have famously fought for years about whether the city or the state is responsible for fixing the subterranean mess. Nobody wants to pay, so one of the world’s great transportation systems falls into disrepair. Historian Scott Gabriel Knowles proposes that we think of the “deferred maintenance” of public infrastructures as slow-motion disasters, which sustain the oppression of marginalized and underserved populations. 23 Summers, meanwhile, emphasizes the “debt burden on the next generation,” since the cost of fixing the world compounds over time. A chorus of economists says that infrastructure maintenance has positive effects on economic growth and productivity. 24 And yet here we are, waiting for an overcrowded 7 train.
If even the economists and engineers can’t rally public funding for urban maintenance, what chance do the rest of us have? ASCE’s “report card” gives no grades for public housing or mental health clinics, and it doesn’t recognize the infrastructures built and maintained by librarians and domestic workers and data managers. Fortunately, maintenance researchers take a wider view of the repairspace. In some cases, there are other evaluative bodies that can assess infrastructural conditions.
The civil engineers’ ‘report card’ doesn’t recognize the infrastructures built by librarians and domestic workers and data managers.
Consider the New York City Housing Authority, which oversees more than 2,400 buildings in 325 developments, sheltering about five percent of the population. On average those buildings are around 60 years old, and their systems periodically break down, leaving residents without heat or hot water. NYCHA’s latest Public Needs Assessment describes leaky roofs, windows, and pipes, which have caused mold and other extensive damage to walls and ceilings. A proposal to renovate kitchens and bathrooms could cost $31.8 billion over the next five years. 25 And that was before federal sanctions. After housing officials were caught submitting false reports about lead paint, NYCHA has been placed under federal monitoring and must spend at least $1 billion more on repairs. These kind of negative feedback loops are typical of deferred maintenance: federal budget cuts lead to local neglect which leads to federal sanctions. 26
We can zoom in from that regulatory apparatus to see all the other labor involved in maintaining a building. At the architectural scale, maintenance involves a wide spectrum of professional expertise: “preservation, material science, development, policy, insurance law, and building codes,” and more, as Hilary Sample explains. Different styles of buildings — from pre-modern dwellings to modernist airports — call for different modes of upkeep, preservation, or conservation. In recent decades, architects have used post-occupancy evaluations to assess how their buildings are performing and make adjustments. They can also anticipate maintenance needs and design for them, by choosing durable materials and conducting lifecycle cost analyses and environmental impact studies. 27
Building maintenance is sometimes legible from the street. We see work permits in foyer windows and repair vans parked out front. A recent exhibition on “Scaffolding” at the Center for Architecture showed how this seemingly utilitarian structure — none too popular in New York, given its tendency to compress pedestrian traffic and create street-level dungeons — can serve as a social infrastructure, as a tool for improvisatory construction, and even as a platform for performance. 28 Inside the building, the cast of maintainers widens. For Urban Omnibus, Juliette Spertus and Valeria Mogilevich interviewed building superintendents and showed how they serve as “educators, enforcers, and innovators in maintenance.” Sociologist Christopher Henke has studied how physical plant mechanics negotiate amongst themselves, and, in a separate paper, he recommends that repair be considered integral to sustainable building practices. And of course we can’t forget the work tenants and owners do to maintain their own homes. For over a century, engineers, management consultants, and efficiency experts — many of them women — have been studying the mechanics of housework. They launched the “domestic science” movement and the field of home economics. 29
When women entered the workforce in great numbers in the 1960s, scholars and activists (drawing inspiration from early feminists) began thinking differently about the maintenance those women had long been doing at home without compensation. As Silvia Federici puts it, “after two world wars … the lures of domesticity and the prospect of sacrificing our lives to produce more workers and soldiers” — of reproducing the labor force necessary to maintain a productive economy — “had no hold on our imagination.” 30 Mierle Laderman Ukeles pioneered the genre of “Maintenance Art,” performing the mundanity of this exhausting work, while granting it (and herself, a wife and mother) visibility and value within the civic realm. 31 Yet much early thinking about “reproductive labor” among Marxist feminists ignored the fact that women of color, poor women, and immigrants “had been engaged in paid market work in large numbers for many decades.” As they cooked, cleaned, and nannied for affluent families, they were often less available to care for their own. 32
Nowadays, social scientists are more likely to focus on the socioeconomic dynamics of reproductive labor, particularly on shifting gender (im)balances, the rights of domestic workers, and the “global care chains” transferring maintenance labor from the Global South to the north. 33 Critics and activists have validated a greater range of (re)productive activities, to include all the mental, manual, and emotional work necessary to “maintain existing life and to reproduce the next generation.” 34 Maintaining life — that’s a big job. In a foundational article from 1992, Evelyn Nakano Glenn listed some of those responsibilities: “purchasing household goods, preparing and serving food, laundering and repairing clothing, maintaining furnishings and appliances, socializing children, providing care and emotional support for adults, and maintaining kin and community ties.” Today, we might add tech support and digital filtering. 35
Contemporary theorists and activists are also talking a lot about ‘care,’ which has more to do with the ethos and affect of maintenance than with its (re)productive capacities.
Contemporary theorists and activists are also talking a lot about “care,” which has more to do with the ethos and affect of maintenance than with its (re)productive capacities. 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. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life sustaining web.” Maria Puig de la Bellacasa argues that caring involves an “ethico-political commitment” to the neglected and oppressed and a concern with the affective dimensions of our material world. We care for things not because they produce value, but because they already have value. 36
It’s hard to argue with that. Who doesn’t care for care? Yet care, like maintenance, is easily romanticized. Historian Michelle Murphy argues that the “politics of care” promoted by 1970s feminists were “conditioned by white privilege [and] capitalism.” 37 In correcting for these oversights, theorists and activists have turned their attention to the rehearsed, compulsory care performed by female workers — stewardesses, receptionists, nurses, waitresses, customer service reps — in the expanding service industries. Knowledge workers sometimes face similar concerns. Fobazi Ettarh argues that librarians are conditioned to accept low pay, low status, and expanding workloads because librarianship is regarded as a calling — a care-centric vocation that is “inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Yet historians have shown that libraries, for all their goodness, are built upon protocols and policies rooted in colonialism and privilege. And as other social services in cities are starved for funding, librarians are often left to pick up the slack. 38
Now consider healthcare, which is not only unevenly accessible, but is also meted out through policies that exacerbate inequality and through treatments that benefit insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Historically, medical research has been downright exploitative at times. Women are also marginalized in contemporary care practices, where their self-reported ailments may be dismissed as psychosomatic. 39 Black women are particularly disenfranchised. The New York Times recently reported that extreme racial disparities in prenatal care are getting worse: “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants.” 40 This is happening today, in 2018.
Murphy doesn’t dismiss the importance of care, but “in a moment when so many scholars” — and, I’d add, policymakers, activists, artists, and designers — “are turning to affect and care to re-imagine politics,” she wants us to reckon with its troubling histories and administrative structures. She wants us to consider recuperative strategies that don’t normalize care as inherently virtuous and good-feeling. 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.” 41 We could extend these questions to every scale of maintenance work — from transit networks and school systems to homes and objects.