(Roughly) Daily

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”*…

The noble but undervalued craft of maintenance could, Alex Vuocolo explains, help preserve modernity’s finest achievements, from public transit systems to power grids, and serve as a useful framework for addressing climate change and other pressing planetary constraints…

… If you start talking with engineers about maintenance, somebody always brings up Incan rope bridges. Maybe you’ve seen an illustration or a digital rendering in a Hollywood movie. They’re the color of hay and hang with a bit of slack over rivers and canyons in Peru’s rugged terrain. Made from ichu grass threaded into progressively denser and denser bundles, they were ritualistically maintained by ancient Peruvians. They lasted for centuries. Most are long gone now, though at least one has been preserved for posterity as an infrastructural artifact, just like the R32 at the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn.

It’s hard to imagine a modern ritual that would be equal to the task of perpetually renewing steel bridges, concrete highways and cement buildings. It would require an entirely new industrial paradigm. One label for such a system is “circular economy,” which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which funds research on the topic, defines as “an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.”

The concept dates to the 1960s and the work of economist Kenneth E. Boulding, but most of us are more familiar with a related slogan that emerged from the environmental movement of the 1970s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Those have been the guiding principles for the green movement for much of the past half-century, informing everything from municipal recycling programs to efficiency standards for toilets to lifestyle movements calling for “zero-impact living.”

Maintain is notably missing from the triplet, perhaps because it’s difficult to reconcile with sustainability’s implicit emphasis on reduction and restraint. By contrast, maintenance is about keeping things — sometimes large, intensively built things like skyscrapers and subway cars that might be difficult to imagine in the biodegradable utopias of the most gung-ho environmentalists. Ultimately, reduction is prioritized. We must not hold onto things. We must let go like good Buddhists, as industrial civilization becomes merely a painful, transient phase in human history, passing out of us like bad karma.

There is tension in the question of whether to build objects more intensively, so that they last longer, or to recognize that some things cannot endure and thus should be designed that way. There’s no hope for a paper plate in the long run, for example. It’s designed to enter the waste stream as cheaply and easily as possible. Conversely, a toaster could last for decades if maintained properly, assuming the manufacturer hasn’t built obsolescence into it (as is often the case).

More complex objects and built environments, like a transit system or a housing development, compound questions over what should last and what cannot. How do we create systems that can address these questions on their own terms?

The work of maintenance is ultimately a way of parsing and knowing a thing and deciding, over and over, what it’s worth. “Maintenance should be seen as a noble craft,” said [Louis] Rossmann, [owner of a computer repair shop in New York City and a popular Youtuber] “It should be seen as something that teaches people not just how to repair, but how to think.”

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Disappearing Art Of Maintenance,” from @AlexVuocolo in @NoemaMag.

* Kurt Vonnegut


As we take care, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876, during the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, and at the end of a three-day “Convention of Librarians,” 103 librarians (90 men and 13 women) signed a register as charter members of the American Library Association. The oldest library association in the world, It has grown into the largest.


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