The Maintainers has come a long way since Andy Russell and I co-founded it on accident, back in 2015. We thought it would be useful to share some reflections on how The Maintainers community has grown, and the values that stand out from our community’s discussions.
The reality is that The Maintainers literally started off as a joke, when Andy got fed up with the extravagant title of Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. He joked that we should write a counter-volume, which he suggested we could title The Maintainers: How Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Created Technologies that Kind of Work Most of the Time. We had a good laugh—but then we shared the joke with some of our friends, and the idea took on a life of its own. We didn’t expect that so many people, from so many different backgrounds and walks of life, would see themselves—and their values and passions—in this idea.
Through a series of publications, conferences, happy hours, talks, conversations, and innumerable exchanges, we’ve learned that individuals all over the globe want to talk about this. We all are fascinated with why it is that contemporary societies so often overvalue a superficial idea of innovation; and why, at the same time, these societies neglect both maintenance and Maintainers, the people who keep our societies going. The joke has transformed into a movement, and we find ourselves talking to members of The Maintainers community about how we can move forward. In other words, how do we improve the problems we have identified?
We took a big step forward this past fall, when The Maintainers received a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The purpose was to grow and formalize the community of experts, researchers, and practitioners who are interested in maintenance. The vehicle to accomplish this was created by our partnership with the Educopia Institute, an organization dedicated to empowering “collaborative communities to create, share, and preserve knowledge.” Much of our work with Educopia this year is to create the organizational infrastructure to support communities in discussing and working on problems around maintenance. We have four pilot communities in various stages of development – information (knowledge management, visual communication, cultural stewardship, digital preservation), open source software, transportation, and a group looking at workforce issues and labor law. We’ve also identified some likely areas of expansion, including water infrastructure, K-12 education, architectural preservation, and more.
We’re especially grateful that Educopia is helping us think about The Maintainers organization itself. We’re incredibly fortunate to be working with Katherine Skinner, Educopia’s Executive Director and the lead author of its Community Cultivation Field Guide. This document is a rich framework for thinking through community development. It’s amazing. Anyone who works within an organization that is growing, changing, or transforming should read it.
As part of this process, where we’re thinking in deliberate and intentional ways about the cultivation of this Maintainers community, we’re working hard to articulate a deceptively simple question: what values motivate and inspire The Maintainers community? This is not simply an exercise in spelling out the values that motivate Andy and I; instead, we’re aiming for something broader and deeper. To accomplish this, our core team has drafted a document trying reflect what we have been hearing from community members as they explain what motivates them and what they are trying to accomplish in the world. As you will see below, we have boiled these down to three related points: Care, Research, and Capacity. As I’ll mention at the end, we are actively searching out feedback on this text, so while you’re reading them, please ask yourself, “Does this text reflect my understanding of what this community is doing?”
Societies must care for those individuals who take care of it.
Western cultures laud and heap attention on so-called “innovators” but often overlook and forsake those individuals who keep our world from falling apart. Our community is dedicated to recognizing these crucial individuals who keep society’s systems running. We seek to identify and confront the issues that prevent Maintainers from flourishing as individuals, in collectives, and in their varied occupational roles. We highlight these obstacles as a step toward positive recommendations that will lead to greater levels of recognition, fair compensation, and more widespread appreciation of the value of maintenance labor and their foundational contributions to society.
Grounded perspectives on human life with technology.
Many of the problems Maintainers face stem from fanciful ideas—which we call innovation-speak—that are unsupported by evidence about how technology works, about the role new things play in society, and about how humans will benefit. A more accurate and grounded understanding of human life with technology requires continual, critical inquiry into the daily practices of individuals, organizations, and communities. Accordingly, the Maintainers fosters and promotes action research into maintenance, repair, infrastructure, and the mundane work that keeps our society going. And we seek to nurture partnerships to connect researchers and practitioners who share the goal of putting experience, research, and evidence to work.
Resources for Maintainers to help each other.
The Maintainers seeks to build capacity to improve maintenance practices and to help Maintainers—as individuals and communities—share knowledge about common challenges and best practices. There are few secrets in the science and craft of maintenance. Instead, what is needed most is to create and disseminate tools that improve maintenance practices and increase sharing of maintenance knowledge across domains. Our success requires constant feedback and engagement from a variety of stakeholders and the twin spirits of flexibility and openness to different ideas.
We see this text as very provisional – it is meant to inspire discussion, debate, and consensus. We want very much for this text to mirror the values that hold our community together and help to guide our future directions. (Are you a part of The Maintainers community? If you want to be, you are.) We would LOVE to hear what you think. Please comment below, add thoughts through this feedback form, or by email to lee(at)themaintainers.org or andy(at)themaintainers.org.
After a period of feedback, reflection, and revision, we will post a new version of this text on this website. But even then we won’t see it as a final, written-in-stone text but rather as something that will need regular updating and reconsideration.