New topic, new project line here: the repair and maintenance practices of electronic objects. Nothing fancy so far, I'm just writing a research grant. But, as usual, it's hard not to start the project before getting the grant. Maybe the grant writing is already the beginning of the project, which is a common situation these days when you're on foot in academia and one foot out.
Anyway. I'm collecting material (research reports, papers, articles, et al.) and doing a little bit of field observation. It's funny because it forces me to revisit content I've blogged about here. For instance this paper called "Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance" by Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift (blogged back in 2009) seems to be a seminal reference on the topic of "repair ethnography". This paper is important as it shows how the focus on repair and maintenance can be seen as a way to address a "missing link" in social theory. The authors use these topics in order to "understand of modern societies and, particularly, cities".
Some elements that caught my attention :
"Things only come into visible focus as things when they become inoperable – they break or stutter and they then become the object of attention. [...] it is in this space between breakdown and restoration of the practical equilibrium – between the visible (that is, ‘broken’) tool and the concealed tool – that repair and maintenance, makes its bid for significance."
As Virilio expressed earlier, and as stated by Graham and Thrift, the accident is part of the thing:
"it becomes increasingly difficult to define what the ‘thing’ is that is being maintained and repaired. Is it the thing itself, or the negotiated order that surrounds it, or some ‘larger’ entity? Similarly, it can be argued that the accidents that stem from so many breakdowns are not aberrant but are a part of the thing itself. To invent the train is to invent the train crash, to invent the plane is to invent the plane crash, and so on"
As a consequence, a focus on repair and maintenance is important for various reasons, some are described in this paragraph:
"maintenance and repair also illustrate the importance of human labour and ingenuity. [...] when things break down, new solutions may be invented. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that this kind of piece- by-piece adaptation is a leading cause of innovation, acting as a continu- ous feedback loop of experimentation which, through many small increments in practical knowledge, can produce large changes [...] maintenance and repair can itself be a vital source of variation, improvisation and innovation. Repair and maintenance does not have to mean exact restoration. Think only of the bodged job, which still allows something to continue functioning but probably at a lower level; the upgrade, which allows something to take on new features which keep it contemporary; the cannibalization and recycling of materials, which allows at least one recombined object to carry on, formed from the bones of its fellows; or the complete rebuild, which allows some- thing to continue in near pristine condition. And what starts out as repair may soon become improvement, innovation, even growth. The examples are legion: the constant tinkering of consumers with consumer goods, which can certainly lead to customization and may even lead to redefinition, as in the case of the early automobile"
This leads them to highlight the importance of expertise
"information and communications technologies have largely replaced the system of automobility as both the most central and yet the most likely to break down, not least because of design flaws that are widely acknowledged but seem to be subject to a law of inertia (Norman, 1998). Whole generations are becoming expert at rebooting, defragging and downloading new security patches."
Which leads to the importance of designing products with this in mind:
"Products could be designed so that they are easily maintained, repaired and upgraded, using light materials and structures and various forms of metering (Van Hinte and Beukers, 1998). Technological paradigms oriented towards the fetishistic generation of accelerating waves of quickly disposed of hard products could be reorganized around longer- term and sustainable systems of service delivery designed from the outset to be easily and continually upgraded"
The author give the following examples for that matter:
"Alternatively, repair and maintenance activities could be actively expanded, so that commodity production and waste were both minimized (Verbeek, 2004). Design consultancies like the Eternally Yours Foundation in the Netherlands (Eternally Yours, 2004), have already attempted to design products that would have a new and more knowing relationship to maintenance and repair."
Why do I blog this? The paper offers both a theoretical perspective (on how focusing on repair/maintenance is a shift in social theory), and a series of insights about where to look.