The Maintainers: a conference on keeping things working (most of the time)

You might not think a conference on maintenance would be all that exciting. But The Maintainers – a conference I attended this past week at Stevens Institute of Technology in scenic Hoboken, New Jersey – was not only exciting, but thought-provoking, inspiring and challenging as well.

There were far too many great sessions to recap in detail here; every speaker had something compelling to say, often from a perspective I’d not considered before. I’ve posted my somewhat scattered notes from the conference, but let me try and recap a few of the themes that emerged over the course of several days, with the caveat that I missed the first day of the conference as well as the first session on Saturday (because really, there’s no way I’m getting out to Hoboken at 8:45 on a Saturday morning).

Who are the maintainers?

Perhaps the most obvious theme of the conference – as its title suggests – was an articulation of who does maintenance work. Or, as Andrew Russell (quoting Greg Downey) said, “Who does what kind of information work, when and where and why?” As one might expect, maintenance work is highly gendered, racialized and carries strong class implications. The invisible and marginalized populations of of a given society are usually the ones who maintain its systems.

Ellen Foster’s excellent paper, “Systems of Maintenance: Feminist Theory and Method,” drew on Stacy Alaimo’s conception of “trans-corporeality” – the environment is not “out there” apart from us but is actually in and of us – to bring together Mierle Laderman Ukele’s “maintenance art,” feminist hacker and fixer collectives like the Fixers Collective, arguing that individuals and groups on the margins of cultures are thinking about care and maintenance in both performative and real ways.

This theme continued in Lee Vinsel’s “The Stories We Tell, or, Mary Poppins, Maintainer,” which asked “What stories about human life with technology are morally available to us?” while reimagining Mary Poppins as a story about maintenance and maintainers (chimney sweeps, anyone?). Ellan Spero’s “A Card for Everything, Miss Whittle!” discussed the work of Lois Whittle, a staff member of the Mellon Institute for Social Research, who developed a pre-digital technology for efficient retrieval of records. Needless to say, as an archivist obsessed with record-keeping systems, this was my favorite presentation of the conference!

Almost every presenter touched on this theme. Hugh Lester’s paper (misleadingly titled “Program Manager for Life”) delved into the maintenance of jails and courthouses, while Misha Rabinovich and Caitlin Foley’s “Maintenance Art and Extreme Sharing” used humor in an insightful and incisive way to expose the inequities surrounding maintenance work.

What needs to be maintained?

Many of the presentations were case studies of maintenance work (or, in some cases, a lack thereof) on specific pieces of infrastructure or technologies. This covered a broad range of historical and contemporary topics, from steamboats and the Erie Canal to space missions and Microsoft Windows. Although my own experience with maintenance is based largely on digital technologies, I found the historical perspective both enlightening and challenging. Ideas of “obsolete” technologies, progress and maintainability echo pretty strongly across time.

That said, the session that spoke most directly to me was called “Maintaining the Digital.” Overall, this session challenged canonical ideas of software as something immaterial, ephemeral, but with easily defined boundaries and few social or political implications. Nathan Ensmenger took these themes on most directly in “When Good Software Goes Bad: The Unexpected Durability of Digital Technologies,” demonstrating how software is composed of many interlocking pieces (drivers, user applications, backups, updates, virus scans) and also how it has a fundamentally human component. Stephanie Dick and Dan Volmar’s excellently-titled “GOTOHELL.DLL: Software Dependencies and the Maintenance of Microsoft Windows” talked about the challenges of maintaining Microsoft Windows, a phenomenon with with many of us are all too familiar. They too laid out a conception of software as material, relational, and grounded in process and practice. The last two papers in this panel, Greg Bloom’s “The Tragedy of the Directories: Towards the Maintenance of Community Resource Data as a Digital Public Good” and Bradley Fidler’s “The Dependence of Cyberspace: Political and Technical Maintenance of Internet Resources,” talked about the political implications of software, making a case for the centrality of open data standards to maintainability and questioning the internet origin narrative narrative which depicts the internet as a place of decentralization and freedom.

The Big Takeaways

This was not a conference that lent itself to easy summarization; there were simply too many good ideas from too many perspectives for it all to be summed up in a couple of sentences. That’s not going to stop me from trying though.

First, the study of maintenance and maintainers helps us see the invisible. It shows us how wealth and power are unevenly distributed along lines of race, gender and class. And it exposes infrastructure we take for granted, upon which the daily routines of our lives rely.

In addition, archivists and allied information professionals have a lot to offer to a conversation about maintenance from their perspective as practitioners. There’s a rich history of thought in archives about the visibility and invisibility of marginalized populations, not to mention an ongoing discussion in the profession about our own relative invisibility. In a sense, archivists are maintainers of records, information, relationships and memory; let’s make our voices heard!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *