Rethinking Repair

This chapter is an exercise in broken world thinking. It asks what happens when we take erosion, breakdown, and decay, rather than novelty, growth, and progress, as our starting points in thinking through the nature, use, and effects of information technology and new media.

  1. ​The modern infrastructural ideal​
  2. ​The fulcrum of these two worlds​
  3. ​A creature of bones, not words​
  4. ​The world is always breaking​
  5. ​A side that goes unrecognized​
  1. ​104. Site Repair​
  2. ​Makers and Making​
  3. ​Maintenance and Care​
  1. The modern infrastructural ideal

    The form and possibility of the "modern infrastructural ideal" is increasingly under threat, as cracks (sometimes literal ones) show up in our bridges, our highways, our airports, and the nets of our social welfare systems. For these and other reasons, broken world thinking asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design as conventionally practices and thought about are the key themes and problems facing new media and technology scholarship today.

    Attached to this, however, comes a second and more hopeful approach: namely, a deep wonder and appreciation for the ongoing activities by which stability (such as it is) is maintained, the subtle arts of repair by which rich and robust lives are sustained against the weight of centrifugal odds, and how sociotechnical forms and infrastructures, large and small, get not only broken but restored, one not-so-metaphoric brick at a time.

    1. ​How Buildings Learn​
  2. The fulcrum of these two worlds

    Here, then, are two radically different forces and realities. On one hand, a fractal world, a centrifugal world, and always-almost-falling-apart world. On the other, a world in constant process of fixing and reinvention, reconfiguring and reassembling into new combinations and new possibilities...the fulcrum of these two worlds is repair.

    1. ​A Topiary​
  3. A creature of bones, not words

    In building connections, [articulation work] builds meaning and identity, sorting out ontologies on the fly rather than mixing and matching between fixed and stable entities. Articulation lives first and foremost in practice, not representation; as its proper etymology suggests, it's a creature of bones, not words. When articulation fails, systems seize up, and our sociotechnical worlds become stuff, arthritic, unworkable.

    "Articulation Work" here refers to the concept as defined by Susan Leigh Star and Anselm Strauss (1999).

  4. A side that goes unrecognized


    Edward Burtynsky, Shipbreaking #4.

    Burtynsky's [shipbreaking] photos tell us important things about the themes of breakdown, maintenance, and repair raised here. The first is the extent to which such work is rendered invisible under our normal modes of picturing and theorizing technology. Burtynsky's photos share, in exquisite detail, a side or moment of technological life that goes for the most part unrecognized.

    If we are to understand maintenance, repair, and technology more broadly, scenes such as Burtynsky's must be made empirically and conceptually familiar, even normal.

  5. Turned into other things

    Ask yourself this: for all the representations of great ships in history you've encountered, at what times and in what forms have you seen such vessels? In almost every instance it will be at moments of birth, or at the heights of strength and glory: the christening before the maiden voyage, rounding the cape, facing down the Spanish fleet, and so on. But what happens (or happened) to these ships? Save for the special cases of hostile sinking, shipwreck, or honorable retirement and preservation, it was this: they were disassembled, repurposed, stripped, and turned into other things.

  6. An engine of technological difference

    Whether at the level of national "technological styles" that shape and differentiate the nature of "same" technologies in different national contexts, or the simple but consequential variations by which industrial commodities are brought into, enlivened, and sustained within the circumstances of individual homes and lives, repair may constitute an important engine by which technological difference is produced and fit is accomplished.

  7. The internet grew by breaking

    The Internet grew by breaking, bumping up against the limits of existing protocols and practices and working around them, leaving behind almost by accident some of the properties that we now enumerate as key and distinctive virtues of the Internet as infrastructural form. Far from being a generalized cultural tendency or a property of individual minds, innovation in the technology space, as in culture more generally, is therefore organized around problems. This makes innovation simultaneously specific and in some measure collective in nature. And its engine is breakdown and repair.

  8. What the fixer knows

    Can repair sites and repair actors claim special insight or knowledge, by virtue of their positioning vis-à-vis the worlds of technology they engage? Can the fixer know and see different things—indeed, different worlds—than the better-known figures of "designer" or "user"?

  9. Tool-being

    Take Heidegger's notion of "tool-being", built around the central distinction between tools that are "ready-to-hand" versus "present-at-hand".

    In the former state, technologies function as anticipated, do and stay where they're supposed to, and therefore sink below the level of conscious reflection. In the latter, the material world resists, obstructs, or frustrates action, and therefore calls attention to itself (precisely because we must now work to figure out and overcome barriers in our no-longer seamless world).

    1. ​To be truly simple​
  10. An ethics of mutual care

    Foregrounding maintenance and repair as an aspect of technological work invites not only new functional but also moral relations to the world of technology. It references what is in fact a very old but routinely forgotten relationship of humans to things in the world: namely, an ethics of mutual care and responsibility.

  11. To love deeply a world of things

    Care brings the worlds of action and meaning back together, and reconnects the necessary work of maintenance with the forms of attachment that so often (but invisibly, at least to analysts) sustain it.

    ...What if we care about our technologies, and do so in more than a trivial way? This feature or property has sometimes been extended to technologies in the past, but usually only ones that come out of deep folk or craft traditions, and rarely the products of a modern industrial culture.

    ...Is it possible to love, and love deeply, a world of things?

    There's a bit of irony in the realization that, at least as I read this in 2021, what are often the most deeply appreciated technological things—e.g. Apple's products—are often the least repairable.

    This is in stark contrast to, say, the car-tinkering and fixit culture of those who grew up in 1950's and 60's. Irwin's cherry hot rods and Pirsig's motorcycles.

  12. We live in the aftermath

    So do we live in later modernity, postmodernity, alternative modernity, or liquid modernity? Knowledge societies, information societies, network societies, or risk societies? New media, old media, dead media, or hypermedia? The world of information, the world of search, the world of networks, or the or the world of big data?

    The answer is simple: like every generation before, we live in the aftermath.