As I write this, the house sits dusty, due for its weekly vacuuming. The yard is strewn with broken twigs and dried leaves that need to be gathered up after all the snow from winter has finally melted away. My cat’s kick toy rabbit has one ear that’s flopped to the side, having been half bitten off.
I sit here, reading articles about one of the past week’s biggest news stories: the Notre Dame fire. I wonder, like many, why it takes a massive crisis before close to a billion was invested towards repairing the cathedral, when all along the people behind its restoration had been asking for funding help.
And then in one of these articles I stumble across a wonderful essay, Rethinking Repair, by Steven J. Jackson, a Technology Studies professor at Cornell. This essay is an ode to craftsmen, maintenance personnel, and engineers everywhere, many of whom appreciate the value of repair.
He argues for “broken world” thinking, or a way of seeing the world as a place where decay and breakdown is inevitable, and the “ethics of repair” is how we go about fixing, restoring, and reconnecting things that are constantly breaking down. It’s a compelling piece that explores how our rush for technological progress often overshadows the critical work of maintenance and repair. He makes the boring work of repair sound essential, important, and I dare say, even beautiful.
Of course, I was hooked from the beginning because Jackson opens with one of my favorite song lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I’ll let you read my favorite highlights from the essay:
So the world is always breaking; it’s in its nature to break.
“Here, then, are two radically different forces and realities. On one hand, a fractal world, a centrifugal world, an 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—a topic of both hope and concern. It is a world of pain and possibility, creativity and destruction, innovation, and the worst excesses of leftover habit and power.”
“The fulcrum of these two worlds is repair: the subtle acts of care by which order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended, and the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished.”
“...repair ... fills in the moment of hope and fear in which bridges from old worlds to new worlds are built, and the continuity of order, value, and meaning gets woven, one tenuous thread at a time. And it does all this quietly, humbly, and all the time.”
“At first glance, nothing could seem farther apart than the apparently separate questions of innovation and repair. Innovation, in the dominant coding, comes first: at the start of the technology chain, in moments of quasi-mythical origination, a creature of garage-turned-corporate engineers, operating with or without the benefits of market research and user experience operations. Repair comes later, when screens and buttons fail, firmware is corrupted, and the iPhone gets shipped back to wherever iPhones come from. (We generally prefer to think not at all of what happens after such moments, in the piles of e-junk accumulated or shipped overseas to Africa or Asia.)
But this is a false and partial representation of how worlds of technology actually work, when they work. Against fans and critics of design alike, innovation rarely if ever inheres in moments of origination, passing unproblematically into the bodies of the objects and practices such work informs. For this reason, the efficacy of innovation in the world is limited—until extended, sustained, and completed in repair.”
“…attention to maintenance and repair may help to redirect our gaze from moments of production to moments of sustainability and the myriad forms of activity by which the shape, standing, and meaning of objects in the world is produced and sustained—a feature especially valuable in a field too often occupied with the shock of the new.”
“…moving maintenance and repair back to the center of thinking around media and technology may help to develop deeper and richer stories of relationality to the technological artifacts and systems that surround us, positioning the world of things as an active component and partner in the ongoing project of building more humane, just, and sustainable collectives.”
“In June 2012 controversy erupted around the design of the retina display on Apple’s newly redesigned MacBook Pro computer. As early reviews enthused and critics conceded, the new MacBook Pro was a functionally and aesthetically elegant machine, continuing recent trends in Apple design toward simple, compact, and seamless functionality predicated on the tight control and integration of hardware and software elements. It was also, as Kyle Wiens of iFixit.org3 reported in a review for Wired magazine, “the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart”.
“Here, from a piece titled “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” is Benjamin’s commentary on the work:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (1969, 257–258)
This remains one of our most vivid and shocking indictments of a progressivist history. In place of a grand historical march toward freedom or salvation, or the forward and certain momentum of Marxian dialectics, we are left with this: a catastrophe, blowing blindly backward into the future, an image made all the more horrific by the poignancy of the angel’s frustrated desire “to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”
But this is not where Benjamin concludes. In the end, Benjamin winds up in the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris, studying poets and ragpickers, and finding grounds for resilience and hope. In the aftermath of history and its lineage of wreckage and debris, he quietly goes about the business of collecting and recuperating the world around him.”
This essay moved me powerfully, for a number of reasons. Perhaps it’s because I work in the fast-paced advertising technology industry and have spent the last decade working in the field of marketing, where an enormous amount of focus is poured into selling the new and the shiny. And perhaps it’s also because Alan is the opposite of me in many ways - as an engineer, his biggest concerns are ensuring things are stable, working, and lasting - and just by seeing things from his perspective, I’ve learned many important things about life.
Before reading this essay, I’ve been passionately learning and educating myself about what it means to live a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable lifestyle that is kinder to my body, the environment, and the people who make the things I buy. My conviction had been growing that this is the better way to live. I couldn’t quite articulate why “sustainability” was so important, but this essay articulates it so well with the term “broken world thinking” to sum up a way of looking at the world where care and attention must be paid to restoration and repair in order for everything in it to thrive.