For last year’s Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) conference in Whistler, BC, I circulated the first draft of “Why Fabricate?” There, I argued for ways to imagine digital work beyond a “make-break” binary by building on Daniela K. Rosner and Morgan Ames’s notion of “negotiated endurance,” which addresses:

the ways that maintenance, care, and repair are negotiated—often collaboratively—in use and the meaning-making associated with use, rather than the meanings pre-specified by designers. In . . . case studies, we saw that the process of breakdown and repair was not something that device designers or event planners could effectively script ahead of time. Based on these observations, we argue that designers’ intentions to plan or divert such outcomes can often be rendered ineffective without accounting for the specific material, economic and cultural infrastructures that are at play in use. (Rosner and Ames 2014: 9)

In “Why Fabricate?” I was specifically interested in types of projects, such as historical prototyping projects, that may use care and repair as a paradigm for research. When juxtaposed with a make or break binary, a care and repair paradigm may imply that the creation or obsolescence of technologies matters less than their maintenance, that the novelty or datedness of media is less significant than how they are stewarded, or that the spectacle of digital technologies is flipped to examine their everydayness. How, indeed, is digital work quite routine? This emphasis on the everyday is rather common in media and technology studies, where narratives of creation and obsolescence are frequently associated with either lone inventor myths (as if technologies spring from genius minds) or avant-garde proclivities for ruptures, radical breaks, and the “new” (as opposed to iteration, incremental change, or redescription). For me, then, a care and repair paradigm prompts us to understand techniques such as digital fabrication and rapid prototyping in terms of remaking or reconstruction, and it may even involve some suspicion of innovating or breaking things. It also anchors creativity and critique in labor and infrastructure studies, without rendering “imagination” a bad word.

I appreciate Rosner and Ames’s description of negotiated endurance not only because it privileges situations over ideals but also for its emphasis on how the fine-grained dimensions of infrastructure and labor influence knowledge production. In this sense, it very much echoes existing work by Donna Haraway (Situated Knowledges), Susan Leigh Star (Standards and Their Stories), Karen Barad (Meeting the Universe Halfway), and McKenzie Wark (Molecular Red), as well as recent concerns about maker culture expressed by Debbie Chachra. For my purposes here, I also wonder if negotiated endurance enables ways to interpret two contemporary phenomena at once: “on-demand” economics premised on “curating” services and data, and the individualist or romantic innovation frequently informing most maker cultures. Given their widespread influence, both of these phenomena seem important to digital studies today.

For an example of the former (on-demand economics), we might refer to Uber or Airbnb, which owns no vehicles or real estate, respectively. Recently, at CUNY’s “Digging Deep” event, Allison Burtch observed that these companies manage to make nothing (2015: n. pag.). One consequence of this approach is that they displace the onus of care and repair onto their service providers, usually in the name of sharing or peer-to-peer networking. They also traffic almost entirely in what Manuel Castells calls the “space of flows,” which is distant from the “space of places” (see Castells 2010, The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed.). That is, using networking applications, companies may now invest in real-time exchange (e.g., between driver and passenger) as an abstraction without having to invest in labor, lived time, infrastructure, or situated experience “on the ground.” As the Journalist’s Resource at Harvard suggests, the cultural consequences of these economic models for on-demand sharing are not yet clear (2015: n. pag.); however, they do point us to examples where using technologies to curate services may not be synonymous with caring for infrastructure and social relations.

In the case of Uber, for example, the Center for Economic and Policy Research observes that, even if “Uber drivers on average earn a gross premium of $6.00 an hour over the pay of drivers of traditional cabs . . . the key issue here is the use of the gross premium rather than a direct earnings comparison. The difficulty . . . is that we don’t know the costs incurred by Uber drivers, who use their own car” (2015: n. pag.). By extension, both drivers and passengers remain responsible for any risks involved. Reading the fine print of Uber’s terms and conditions, Stacy Perman writes: “[I]n effect, Uber says it’s neither an owner nor an operator, just a piece of software that connects riders to cars. Have a run-in with a driver? Not our problem, says Uber” (2015: n. pag.). From the perspective of negotiated endurance, Uber’s software designers cannot script how and to what effects riders are connected to cars and drivers. They can only facilitate the connection. Moments of breakdown—be they social, technical, or a blend of the two—also exceed or complicate the space of flows, situated such as they are in the space of places (on the ground, in the car, in lived social reality).

While on-demand economics likely have more severe or pressing implications for how we study emerging social relations and forms of exchange, romantic notions of innovation common across maker cultures are also significant for their influence within popular cultures. A few examples come to mind here: nostalgia for pre-digital living (e.g., a withdrawal from contemporary society via manual or mechanical technologies from the 19th century); certain brands of do-it-yourself (DIY) production anchored in bootstrapping and possessive individualism; fetishizing glitches as ways to break or critique systems in a reactionary fashion; the reduction of manufacturing or repair to weekend hobbyism (as opposed to a full-time occupation); or the reanimation of lone inventor myths (prototypically able-bodied, masculine, white, and male) through publications such as Make magazine. Of course, we can learn a lot about new techniques from reading various Make publications (e.g., Hartman’s wearables book or Igoe’s talking objects book). However, these publications are not really intended to prompt considerations of care and repair, including histories of care and repair. After all, they are Make books, not maintenance manuals.

Negotiated endurance helps us unpack these present-day paradigms of romantic, individualist innovation by moving beyond a desire for origin stories, articulating technical work as a collaborative social effort, privileging the stewardship of infrastructure over its creation or obsolescence, and steeping technologies in narratives of constant development, care, and change. Again, a lot of this is quite everyday. Nevertheless, as critical gestures, a care and repair paradigm (following Rosner and Ames) might allow us to engage contemporary issues (such as sharing economies and romantic nostalgia for pre-digital living) from multiple positions, including the positions of labor and infrastructure, while also asking what sort of ethos we wish to foster through work on technology and culture.

That said, during the last year or so I have been considering how to think small about negotiated endurance, gradually shifting from projects to practices motivated by care and repair. These practices inform the graduate seminar (“Prototyping Texts”) I am currently teaching at UVic, but also a lot of collaborative research in the MLab and elsewhere, with an emphasis on learning and experimenting with technologies. While I am still determining how to best articulate these practices, six of them are listed and described below. As ways to think small about negotiated endurance, they might be considered exercises in the routines of technology and culture.

Attribution Study: Inspired by well-established projects, such as The Orlando Project and INKE, attribution studies are incredibly informative ways to foreground the negotiated endurance of collaboration and collaboratively produced materials. Who is acknowledged and supported for their work, how, and where? How is the project’s infrastructure entangled with the people who contributed to it? While The Orlando Project and INKE are models for ethos and clarity here, matters of attribution are often mysterious when it comes to digital projects in and beyond the academy. Drawing people’s attention to these matters encourages them to account for who maintains the technologies and data that people regularly use. Here, work by scholars such as Lisa Rhody, including her recent talk at MLA 2016, have addressed these care and repair issues in detail.

Sourcing Exercise: While conducting media history research, sourcing exercises ask where component parts of a given technology come from, where they are manufactured, by whom, and in what conditions. Nina Belojevic’s article on circuit-bending demonstrates how such sourcing is in fact quite difficult to do, particularly when determining the origin of, say, chip manufacturing for electronics. Even when data sheets are available, replacement parts for many technologies are hard to acquire, and they are rarely, if ever, distributed by big-box stores such as Best Buy. As Belojevic suggests, one effect of sourcing exercises is an inquiry into labor and material conditions. Another is nudging digital studies beyond software and source code. And yet another is underscoring how the ontologies of devices are opaque at best. This opacity is only increased when we move from treating technologies as component parts to examining them as compositions of rare earth elements such as neodymium and yttrium.

Reverse-Engineering and Reassembly: Whereas reverse engineering is quite common in the sciences, it is less familiar to the humanities, with Anne Balsamo, Edward Jones-Imhotep, Kari Kraus, and William J. Turkel conducting some of the most compelling research on the topic, in addition to using reverse-engineering as a research technique. In terms of negotiated endurance, reverse-engineering necessarily involves considering how technologies break down, or can be broken down and demanufactured. More important, it highlights the spaces between parts. These spaces gesture toward the actions or behaviors involved in assembly and maintenance—how, if you will, things stay together. By using reverse-engineering as a research technique, then, we can demystify the infrastructural components we often inherit but also break them down to imagine what else they may have been and how they were, and continue to be, repaired. True, this may be considered a rather irreverent approach to history (e.g., the object is neither whole nor sacred). But reverse-engineering historical materials need not imply a lack of regard for them. That is, it can be done deliberately, with care and stewardship in mind.

Shift in Modality: When working with technologies, especially digital technologies, what needs to be repaired is rarely obvious or easy to perceive. As goes the vernacular, breakdown surprises (or frustrates) us. Shifting the modalities through which we interpret technologies may facilitate insight into these surprises. Here, Shintaro Miyazaki’s “Sounds from a Coil” is informative. Instead of treating phones as objects at which we stare, or as instruments for conversation, it sonifies their electromagnetic emissions, which might otherwise be ignored. What’s so compelling about Miyazaki’s experiment is not that he reveals something that’s hidden. It’s that he demonstrates how technologies are entangled with the senses, and thus how meaning-making with technologies is intertwined with how they are perceived.

Change Histories: Version control systems such as Git are sparking new research about how repositories, as well as books, articles, and code, are iteratively developed. In short, with a given repository, we can access the final product together with its change history. Of course, change histories do not happen automatically. Ideally, they involve considerations of metadata, including time-stamps, attributions, and descriptions of change (or “commits”); and if they are done for collaborative projects, then they can document and share how those projects were written, edited, formatted, and, indeed, maintained before and after public release. A survey of digital humanities projects using GitHub offers a foundation for studying this maintenance and speaking to its oft-ignored role in the field.

The Five-Year Plan: In both the MLab and the classroom, I have benefited immensely from articulating (with students and other researchers) five-year-plans for projects, including writing projects. In five years, how will people access these materials? In what formats? Via what mechanisms? With more time and support, what would we change or revise? How could it be improved? How could it be more accessible? What aspects could be more persuasive? What should we document for future reference, or for future audiences? These sorts of questions are familiar territory in writing and information studies, especially approaches based in the composition of portfolios. That said, I have found them helpful for thinking beyond a given semester, academic year, funding cycle, or research outcome. While it is certainly important to act upon responses to these questions, the first step is asking them, and humanities students (in particular) may not always be encouraged to ask them.

As I mentioned earlier, I am still struggling with how to best articulate these practices, but I hope those of you at INKE 2016 find them informative as ways to think small about negotiated endurance, or to move from make or break binary to a care and repair paradigm. And as we proceed with work at the intersection of technology and culture, a related issue is—echoing a question recently posed by Alan Liu during the “Care and Repair” panel at the 2016 MLA convention—how much care and repair work we can maintain, ethically or humanely, over time. To engage this issue, digital studies might turn to the long, long history of care and repair paradigms in cultural criticism, including Eve Sedgwick’s notion of “reparative reading” (see Touching Feeling (2002)), to approach the maintenance of digital projects from social and ethical positions.


Post by Jentery Sayers, attached to the Makerspace project, with the news tag. Featured images care of a Sears catalog.

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More about Jentery Sayers

Assistant Professor, English and CSPT | Principal Investigator, MLab in the Humanities