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Dec 31, 2018

Technology's Poor Step-Sister: Maintenance

tags: technology maintenance

This is Jonathan Coopersmith's history of technology blog. He teaches history at Texas A & M University. An Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Jonathan Coopersmith’s latest book is FAXED: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

Like Rodney Dangerfield, maintenance, whether of physical or social infrastructure, gets little respect despite its importance.  That importance historically has remained mostly invisible and unappreciated – until something breaks.  Keeping things going without a reduction of service or, even more challenging, keeping them operating whilst modifying them are challenges that apply both to airplane and organizations.

As the Festival of Maintenance conference in London this fall demonstrated, the concept can be expanded to almost any area, depending on how you define maintenance.  One of the delights of this one-day event was the big tent of participants.  Attending were academics, museum curators, professional maintainers, a range of maker organizers and activists, an architect, organization and advertising executives and the Guerilla Groundsman – and those were just the speakers.  The result was a vibrant salad of very different ingredients, which was both a strength and weakness.  The strength came from the range of perspectives and approaches.  I had multiple “I had never thought of that” moments, always the sign of a good conference. 

The weakness came from trying to pull everything together into a semi-coherent whole.  The widely ranging approaches and topics also reflect the youth and diversity of maintenance as an exciting area of study and action, as organizer Laura James’s article in Medium covering all the presentations illustrates. 

Maintenance has not received its appropriate academic and public appreciation because it is considered “normal” and often invisible – much of the history of technology focuses on innovation and not application, diffusion, and operation.  Budgets and life-cycle costs, however, ignore maintenance at their cost as do societies.  The public prestige of maintainers is often low, reflected in the historical downward trajectory of words like technician.  This conference, together with the American Maintainers’ conferences of 2015 and 2017, are part of a growing professional and academic interest in maintenance worthy of serious study. 

Perhaps the Festival’s most unconventional talk came from the Guerilla Groundsman who, wearing a pixelated box over his head, described his individual efforts to move beyond picking up trash to actually maintaining neglected parts of the Cambridge public infrastructure.  He cleaned bridges, cut shrubbery, painted bollards and repaired wooden benches, fences, and a sign.  Never did anyone stop his acts of civic reconstruction.   His actions could be seen as quixotic or a sign of local budget cuts in Britain since 2009.

The Guerilla Groundsman raises interesting questions about the potential expansion of active citizen participation in physical maintenance.  His endeavors demanded skill, the appropriate tools, and a willingness to buy wood, paint, and other materials.  In contrast, the civic groups I’ve seen in Japan, the then Soviet Union, and America only picked up litter (though the Japanese efforts were far more intensive), which requires no training or real skill.

More importantly, how do you move beyond the local actions of an individual to a larger organizing of individuals into coordinated actions in cooperation with governments?  Or should that even be tried? 

King’s College, London professor David Edgerton described the discipline and resources demanded by maintenance regimes while wondering why societies regard maintenance and its close relative, manufacturing, as less interesting and prestigious than invention. One benefit of Brexit and Trump-provoked trade wars is explicitly rendering the complexity of contemporary supply chains not just for making but also maintaining. 

Mike Green of the Central London Maintenance Association, which has a majority of the London facilities management market, described a changing institutional world of property maintenance.  A major challenge is reshaping institutions to ensure their compliance with standards in an internet-based world. 

As both Edgerton and Green emphasized, maintenance demands compliance and discipline.  And, as the history of many technologies illustrates, what was once seen as liberating may become imprisoning.  The Victoria & Albert’s Natalie Kane described how adult disposable diaper use is spreading from incontinent to fully functional adults whose employers mandate they wear diapers to maximize their work efficiency or time before taking a break.  Is this mission creep or, in the case of gamers maximizing their time before a screen and Chinese traveling in overfilled train cars during the holidays, self-decided? 

The number of speakers on maintaining the existence of voluntary maker groups reflected the attention this conference received in that community and definitely reflected the challenges these mostly volunteer groups faced in creating and sustaining themselves.  Adrian McEwen modified a P. J. O’Rourke quote, “everyone wants to save the earth, but no one wants to do the dishes,” to illuminate the challenges of sustaining a volunteer organization. 

Institutional infrastructure clearly needs as much attention as physical infrastructure to ensure its functioning, resilience, and relevance, but is maintenance the correct prism to view organizational competence?  If not, what are better approaches?  Judging by the common challenges the maker groups faced, their survival and effectiveness would benefit from maintenance-like analytic guidance and toolkit to motivate members and get their dishes done by improving their social functioning. 

Certainly, thinking of goals and actions from a maintenance perspective can stimulate ideas for a long-term viewpoint.  Alex Mecklenberg, a business consultant at Doteveryone, suggested, “Let’s think about imagining the maintenance of your bank instead of imagining the future of the bank.”  That’s a very different perspective. 

Speaking by Skype, an activity now so common to go unnoticed – unless the connection is poor, Lee Vinsel provided a brief history of the Maintainers, or “How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time” in contradistinction to Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  The Virginia Tech professor also briefly described an upcoming project, the Maintenance Community Framework, designed to make maintenance activities more effective and more visible to academics and the public. 

Maintainers, both academic and applied, need to study the broader context in which organizations operate and political decisions occur.  Simon Elmer of Architects for Social Housing provided this background in his overview of London council housing.  Compared with renovating and refilling buildings, tearing existing housing down and replacing it with new, larger buildings is more profitable for everyone – builders, architects and other who bill as a percentage of a project, and local councils – except the householders.  How can groups seeking to upgrade, not uproot the existing buildings frame their arguments in ways that are economically and politically attractive to the council members who will decide what course to take? 

Studying and acting on maintenance are clearly resonating with academics and practitioners.  The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation recently announced it will support the Maintenance Community Framework for “InfoMaintainers - people working in libraries and digital preservation - and Maintainers in the Workforce, a group of experts on the law and policy of labor and poverty.”

This mixing will continue:  The 2019 Festival of Maintenance will occur September 28 in Liverpool.  For more information, go to or

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