Office Communications as Innovation and Maintenance

Today's post is by Nicole Contaxis, a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), where she is a working on a project preserving software developed at the NLM. You can read other reflections she's written on her blog.

Prioritizing maintenance in the history of technology can be framed as a response to the overwhelming emphasis on “innovation” in popular histories and conceptions of technology. This reactionary framing can present issues, particularly because “innovation” is used so often that it can lose nearly all sense of meaning, as this event demonstrates. When one uses “maintenance” as a counterpoint to such an amorphous term, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. Does repair, for example, fall under maintenance? Or, is repair only undertaken when maintenance fails?

Defining the parameters of maintenance is not easy, but perhaps not entirely necessary. By allowing for more flexible conception of maintenance, we can include more people and more activities in our conversations about technology and technology history. It may chafe some to work without clear boundaries, but it can create a more inclusive discussion. The conference which spurred this blog was itself refreshing because of the breadth of topics and speakers. Regardless of how one chooses to define or not define maintenance, it is also clear that the demarcation between maintenance and innovation may rely more on context than it does on the actual piece of technology.

To explain what I mean, I will use office communications and organization as a case study. Several start-ups have tried to “innovate” office communications and organization. Slack, for example, has been heralded as an innovative solution for office communication and has been covered by news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine. Yet, one of the talks at The Maintainers Conference, given by Ellan Spero titled," 'A Card for Everything, Miss Whittle!' - A Maintainer's Approach to the Organization of Academic-Industrial Research at the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research," outlines the practice of office communication as "maintenance." What is so different about these two scenarios that they can be viewed and defined so different?

First, allow me give some background on Miss Whittle and the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research, as taken from my notes on Spero's talk. Lois Whittle worked in the office of the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research before it merged with the Carnegie Institute of Technology to become Carnegie Mellon University. She devised a system for organizing the fellowship agreements at the Mellon Institute that enabled efficient communication across a complex organization. Effectively, Miss Whittle was doing the same type work- and published on it in the Journal of Industrial Chemistry - as Slack.

There are several obvious differences between these two situations. The first is the historic time period. Miss Whittle worked mostly in the early part of the 20th century, and she worked with different mostly with index cards, not computers. The second is gender. Miss Whittle is a woman and Slack's founder and CEO is male. I don't want to downplay either of these differences, and there is a lot to be said about the term "innovation" as it relates to race, gender, and class.

However, what I see the main boundary of maintenance and innovation is control - control over the shape and future of the company and the technologies being created. The entire purpose of Slack is the streamlining of office communications. Miss Whittle's work was ancillary to the work of the Mellon Institute. Although both situations deal with office communication and organization, Slack is in control of its product and how it can be used. Miss Whittle responded to a need within a company, and Miss Whittle did not have control over how her technique would be used over time or even if it would be used. With control, Slack is able to put out its technologies as a product to be bought and sold. Not only can Slack market its product as “innovative,” it can also appear more valuable because it has the capacity to make more capital that can be explicitly tied to the technology. Any monetary gains from Miss Whittle’s work would have been more difficult to measure.

Value can obviously be calculated through a variety of means that do not tie directly to capital, but doe to the particular shape of technology companies today, capital produced by a technology and its value can be easily conflated. As a concept, “innovation” seems inextricable from the complete from of the current technology market, much like "disruption," as you can read more about in this New Yorker article. Miss Whittle, which clearly an important member of the Mellon Institute staff, had nothing to sell.

The boundary between innovation and maintenance seems dependent on context more than the nature of the technology created. The reason why a piece of technology is deemed innovation or maintenance has little to do with the technology created and much more to do with structures in which that technology was created and was/is used.

Creating a Factory-based Repair System in a Chinese Industrial Enterprise, 1961

Today's post is from the historian Philip Scranton, formerly the University Board of Governors Professor, History of Industry and Technology, at Rutgers University—Camden. Phil gave an excellent paper at The Maintainers conference, titled "Fixing Holes in the Plan: Maintenance and Repair in Communist Europe, 1945–1970," which you can read here.

What follows is a translated article on the organization of repair services at a communist-era machine-building plant, taken from Kung-jen Jih-pao (Workers’ Daily) [6 April 19, 196l, page 2].  By early 1961, the People’s Republic of China was experiencing a multi-dimensional crisis. It resulted from planners’ overconfidence (repurposing a great deal of agricultural land to industrial uses, after a huge harvest in 1958), an abrupt schism with the USSR (triggering the withdrawal of thousands of Soviet engineers and technicians working on industrial and infrastructure projects) and a series of floods and droughts that ruined both food and cotton crops. State managers imported millions of tons of grain to address famine conditions, and as early as 1959, instituted nationwide “campaigns” for conserving materials, repairing articles and reducing waste, to deal with narrowed supply chains. The Workers’ Daily essay here reproduced details how this “social services movement” was experienced at a major machine-building plant in the capital. The involvement of families was simplified in part because expanding PRC enterprises funded construction of dormitories, in order to retain workers, given that Beijing’s population was growing faster than its housing stock. My best guess is that the plant employed at least 1000 people.   (Phil Scranton, 26 April 26, 2016)


In response to public demand, the Hsing-ping Machinery Factory in Peiping has instituted repair services among the families of its employees and is intensively developing the project, which has been quite successful so far. As of now approximately one-half of the families that had joined the social services movement are participating in the repair service activities.

During the month of February, services rendered to the employees and their families include, over 3,000 pieces of garments, repaired and newly made; over 3,000 pieces of clothing and bedding, renovated and cleaned; l60 pairs of shoes repaired, 500 odd vehicles, including automobiles[i] and handcarts; 160 pieces of household ware, such as basins, [cooking] pots, and water pots. The repair service charges are generally 10-20% lower than market charges.[ii] At a time when the [living] standard of the people has been raised, certain consumer goods are insufficient to supply demands, and the capacity of repair service in society is inadequate, any effort to increase production, to provide facilities for the masses' use, to promote economy in spending and consumption, and to minimize the chore of the families of employees is bound to win the good will and praise of the employees and their families.

The mentioned factory had in 1958 organized the families of its employees to participate in production activities, but for some time it was not clear what was being done in that setup. Some families aimed at making more money, They moved to wherever they could get better pay, and were not consistently content with the work of the instituted repair service. In view of the situation described above, the party commissar during the past year has been engaged in some well planned thought-reform and political work. By means of reports, group discussions, and visits to the homes in teams, he extensively propagated the meaning of the repair service activities. He also publicized facts about some of the employees who loved and were enthusiastic about their [repair] jobs, who bore responsibility and blame, and employed every means at their disposal to serve the masses. In this way he succeeded in a short time in arousing the families of the employees to take a positive participation in the service activities.

Take the case of “Great-gent” Huang,[iii] for instance. He is the father of Huang Chen, manager of a carriage shop. Now past sixty, "Great-gent" has not been working for many years. He had been in the business of repairing carriages in the past. All his four sons being gainfully employed, he now lives a comfortable life. Upon learning that no one had joined up in that branch of the service [work on carts], he enthusiastically volunteered. He explained: "The happy days we have been enjoying since liberation were given us by the Party. Carriages requiring repair are many, but repair personnel is lacking. Since I know a little about the trade, it would be a pleasure-and happiness on my part to do something for others."

With the exception of necessary maintenance of their houses and furniture, and some other assistance, all of which are provided by the factory, all structures, such as the shoe repair shop, day nursery, and the buildings that house the twenty-two rooms comprising the dining halls and warehouses, have been constructed by the employees themselves, who did all the work, of transporting the salvaged bricks and clay, also carpentry and masonryAll the fixtures were made in a simple and humble way, under the circumstances. Some of them were made with odds and ends, and waste material. The material used for their repair work, except for the small quantity that had to be requisitioned through the service agency, all consisted of scraps, which they continue to collect and accumulate as their work progresses.

Of all the problems confronted in the development of the service activities, the most difficult one is that of know-how. In endeavoring to solve this problem, workers did their utmost to seek out latent talents from among themselves on the one hand, sent delegates to learn the trades from the experienced, and hired teachers to teach them at work on the other hand. They even taught one another while working, if feasible. This is inter-teaching, interchange of knowledge. It helps to raise the standard of quality of workmanship. To illustrate:

Lu Hsueh-I and Tsou Feng-ying of the shoe repairing division were absolutely ignorant of shoe repairing. When they started out they had bent many a nail or tack and hurt their fingers with the hammer many a time, but they firmly believed that knowledge is not inborn, and that if one is willing and determined to learn, one will know how to do things. So while they were working, they studied each situation, helped and learned from one another. At present each can repair about twelve pairs of shoes per day, as compared with two or three pairs at the beginning. In the past they could only handle slippers.  Now they are repairing leather shoes.

Since the inception of the repair service these people have been studying the requirements and demands of the masses, inviting the expression of their opinions and accordingly enlarging the scope of the service from time to time. When some families toward the end of last year made known the difficulty they encountered in obtaining metal goods locally and in the vicinity, and the inconvenience they must suffer when they had to go to the city to procure such items, the repair teams, as a body took the initiative to investigate the needs of the employees and their families. At the conclusion of that investigation, they discovered more than 2,300 water kettles, water buckets, aluminum and-other metal utensils, and about 1000 vehicles consisting of oxcarts and automobiles that were for the employees' own use, required repair. In view of the facts discovered they decided to establish new divisions for repair of automobiles and metal utensils.

For the convenience of the masses, in addition to the regular services given at the receiving station, teams were organized to go to the dormitories of the employees daily and, following preplanned division of work and addresses, ring doorbells and collect items for repair. And given the extent of the factory and public demand, they continuously improved their workmanship and improved the standard of repair services, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In one previous period when some individuals complained about the unsatisfactory ironing work of the laundry, a system of division of work was instituted by the repair service station. All ironing work was henceforth handled by Mu-Hsiu-ying, who excels in ironing, and by her assistants.

On account of proper arrangement of personnel and improved management, the time to complete a repair job has been reduced to 1-2 days, on the average, as compared with four days in the past.

JPRS (Joint Publications Research Service) Report 4893, Selections from Kung-Jen Jih-Pao, No. 4, circulated 4 August 1961, pp. 80-82, Available online at Readex:, a subscription database.

[JPRS was a Department of Commerce Cold War operation, delivering translations of millions of newspaper and journal articles, interviews, broadcasts, decrees and public documents to US policy makers, 1958-1992. Most of these materials are conserved in the Newsbank database, and are keyword searchable.] 

[i] These were chiefly US and Japanese trucks, mostly from the WWII years, not personal autos.

[ii] Yes, there was a vast private market in all Chinese cities for repair and refurbishment of personal and household goods, with pricing both customary and negotiated.. Enterprisers were not permitted to employ other workers, however, but could involve family members in their tasks.

[iii] Think “Grandpa”.

The Maintainers: a conference about keeping things working (most of the time)

This post is by Hillel Arnold, an archivist and Head of Digital Programs at the Rockefeller Archive Center. He can be reached at

You might not think a conference on maintenance would be all that exciting. But The Maintainers (April 7-9 at Stevens Institute of Technology) was not only exciting, but thought-provoking, inspiring and challenging as well.

I’m an archivist and the Head of Digital Programs at the Rockefeller Archive Center, so a large part of my job is keeping things running. Most of these things are systems that support my organization’s mission of collecting, preserving and making available archives of historic significance, but as a manager I do a lot of human maintenance as well to make sure my team is productive, moving in a coordinate way towards strategic goals, and learning and growing as we go.

During the conference, I tweeted a lot and also took some somewhat scattered notes, but I also wanted to write in some detail about some themes I noticed running through many of the sessions. It’s simply not possible to do justice to all of the sessions and presenters; there were far too many great sessions to recap in detail here, and every speaker had something compelling and thought-provoking to contribute.

Who are the maintainers?

Perhaps the most obvious theme of the conference - as its title suggests - was an articulation of who does maintenance work. Or, as Andrew Russell (quoting Greg Downey) said, “Who does what kind of information work, when and where and why?” As one might expect, maintenance work is highly gendered, racialized and carries strong class implications. The invisible and marginalized populations of of a given society are usually the ones who maintain its systems.

Ellen Foster’s excellent paper, “Systems of Maintenance: Feminist Theory and Method,” drew on Stacy Alaimo’s conception of “trans-corporeality” - the environment is not “out there” apart from us but is actually in and of us - to bring together Mierle Laderman Ukele’s “maintenance art,” feminist hacker and fixer collectives like the Fixers Collective, arguing that individuals and groups on the margins of cultures are thinking about care and maintenance in both performative and real ways.

This theme continued in Lee Vinsel’s “The Stories We Tell, or, Mary Poppins, Maintainer,” which asked “What stories about human life with technology are morally available to us?” while reimagining Mary Poppins as a story about maintenance and maintainers (chimney sweeps, anyone?). Ellan Spero’s “A Card for Everything, Miss Whittle!” discussed the work of Lois Whittle, a staff member of the Mellon Institute for Social Research, who developed a pre-digital technology for efficient retrieval of records. Needless to say, as an archivist obsessed with record-keeping systems, this was my favorite presentation of the conference!

Almost every presenter touched on this theme. Hugh Lester’s paper (misleadingly titled “Program Manager for Life”) delved into the maintenance of jails and courthouses, while Misha Rabinovich and Caitlin Foley’s “Maintenance Art and Extreme Sharing” used humor in an insightful and incisive way to expose the inequities surrounding maintenance work.

What needs to be maintained?

Many of the presentations were case studies of maintenance work (or, in some cases, a lack thereof) on specific pieces of infrastructure or technologies. This covered a broad range of historical and contemporary topics, from steamboats and the Erie Canal to space missions and Microsoft Windows. Although my own experience with maintenance is based largely on digital technologies, I found the historical perspective both enlightening and challenging. Ideas of “obsolete” technologies, progress and maintainability echo pretty strongly across time.

That said, the session that spoke most directly to me was called “Maintaining the Digital.” Overall, this session challenged canonical ideas of software as something immaterial, ephemeral, but with easily defined boundaries and few social or political implications. Nathan Ensmenger took these themes on most directly in “When Good Software Goes Bad: The Unexpected Durability of Digital Technologies,” demonstrating how software is composed of many interlocking pieces (drivers, user applications, backups, updates, virus scans) and also how it has a fundamentally human component. Stephanie Dick and Dan Volmar’s excellently-titled “GOTOHELL.DLL: Software Dependencies and the Maintenance of Microsoft Windows” talked about the challenges of maintaining Microsoft Windows, a phenomenon with with many of us are all too familiar. They too laid out a conception of software as material, relational, and grounded in process and practice. The last two papers in this panel, Greg Bloom’s “The Tragedy of the Directories: Towards the Maintenance of Community Resource Data as a Digital Public Good” and Bradley Fidler’s “The Dependence of Cyberspace: Political and Technical Maintenance of Internet Resources,” talked about the political implications of software, making a case for the centrality of open data standards to maintainability and questioning the internet origin narrative narrative which depicts the internet as a place of decentralization and freedom.

The Big Takeaways

This was not a conference that lent itself to easy summarization; there were simply too many good ideas from too many perspectives for it all to be summed up in a couple of sentences. That’s not going to stop me from trying though.

First, the study of maintenance and maintainers helps us see the invisible. It shows us how wealth and power are unevenly distributed along lines of race, gender and class. And it exposes infrastructure we take for granted, upon which the daily routines of our lives rely.

In addition, archivists and allied information professionals have a lot to offer to a conversation about maintenance from their perspective as practitioners. There’s a rich history of thought in archives about the visibility and invisibility of marginalized populations, not to mention an ongoing discussion in the profession about our own relative invisibility. In a sense, archivists are maintainers of records, information, relationships and memory; let’s make our voices heard!

Maintaining Space

Today's blog post is written by Yulia Frumer, a historian of science and technology, focusing especially on East Asian history, and an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Still in a post-Maintainers euphoria, I keep thinking about how the notion of maintenance plays out in my own field of expertise—the history of Japanese science and technology.

"Non - innovator" is a common epithet direct at the Japanese by Westerners. Numerous times my interlocutors or my students have repeated some version of the claim that the Japanese "didn't invent anything new, but just improved on things they (and it is always 'they') copied from others." We can counter this stereotype by demonstrating that Japanese scientists did, in fact, invent and innovate, and that they have historically been robbed of recognition (see scholarship by James Bartholomew, for example). Or, we can dismantle the priority of innovation altogether and focus on the notion of maintenance.

 One of the topics that came up in the coffee break discussions during the recent Maintainers Conference was the intended object of maintenance — should we focus on “things” that are being maintained or look at the maintenance of bodies in relation to their material environment? After all, we are not only tweaking the “things” that need repair or adjustment, but also changing our own movements and habits to smooth our use of “things.” However, whether we maintain “things” or “bodies,” we do so within a particular space. So here I would like to talk about space-maintenance in Japan.

In Japan, the maintenance of space is much more visible than in other countries. Space in Japan is scarce. In Tokyo, a 250sq foot apartment is not called a “tiny house,” it’s called a “house.” Even a tiny space, that may look like it is barely enough to park a car, can be used to shoehorn a building.

The notion that “Japan is small” is ubiquitous in Japanese popular culture. “Fuji in Red,” one of the episodes of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), describes the explosion of nuclear reactors located on Mt. Fuji. As masses of people are trying to flee the scene, one of the protagonists exclaims, “Japan is so small, there is nowhere to escape to.” (It is worth watching the rest of the episode by the way). A similar sentiment is expressed in Japan Sinks (1973, 2006), in which citizens of Japan flee the land crumbling underneath their feet until it nearly disappears. Minoru Kawasaki’s parody of Japan Sinks goes even further. In Everything but Japan Sinks (2006), Japan is the only place left above water after the rest of the world has sunk into the sea, and people from all over the world try to squeeze on to the Japanese islands.

What makes Japan feel so small is not the space itself, but the population density (6,158 people per square km in Tokyo). For such a multitude of people to cohabitate, the space itself must be rigorously maintained. And again, maintaining “space” means maintaining “things” and “bodies” in space.

Let’s start with maintaining things. If you live in a 250 sq. feet apartment, you do not have a lot of storage space, or cupboard space, or even living space. Instead, you move things around to change the function of the space — unrolling the futon in the evening turns the room into a bedroom, rolling it up and storing it in the closet turns the space into a living room. (Of course, we are talking about a Japanese futon, not the bulky American version that is rarely folded up and put away.)

The problem is not only how to make everything fit into a small space, but how to make things fit and still leave them accessible and usable. Keeping an apartment in Japan is like a perpetual game of Tetris, except the blocks never disappear, even when they are neatly arranged. There is plenty of merchandise designed to assist you in maintaining your space — vacuum storage, inner shelves, wall hooks, etc. But constant attempts to live in small spaces has also given rise to a whole genre of life hacks — creative modifications and uses devised to maintain a variety of things within your space. Should we call it innovative maintenance?

And as I mentioned before, maintenance of space also requires the maintaining of bodies. Anybody who has visited Japan probably remembers the yellow lines running along the streets and train platforms. Although they are usually identified by their color (in Japanese too, they are called “yellow lines”), color is probably their least useful aspect for their intended primary users—the blind. The lines, in fact, are not only yellow, but also textured, and thus they allow the visually impaired to feel the pavement with their canes. The texture tells the blind whether they are approaching an intersection or a dangerous edge, or guides them to an entrance or an exit. Thus, the lines are a great example of spatial infrastructure that allows visually impaired people to function within a potentially hostile (to them) space.

This creates the impression that the placement of the yellow lines is a purely benevolent act. And indeed, providing access to the blind was the main objective behind modifying all public spaces in Japan. But as the name “yellow line” implies, the beneficiaries are not the blind alone. In addition to the marginal use of yellow lines as signs (when a train approaches the station, people are asked to retreat “behind the yellow line”), maintaining blind bodies in communal spaces allows everybody to function with minimal disruption. In a country where trains arriving 17 seconds behind schedule are considered late and websites advise you which door of the train to enter in order to make a given transfer, any disruption in the flow of bodies creates a problem. It took you additional two seconds to take your subway ticket out of your pocket? —Grumble. You try to walk the wrong way against a throng of people? —You might end up in the ER. No wonder that those who commit suicide often choose to get their revenge against society by disrupting train service during rush hour. In this situation, a blind person wondering around, or (god forbid) falling onto the train tracks, is not only a pitiful sight — it is a disruption in the time-space necessary for the proper functioning of society. Maintaining blind bodies within this space by means of yellow lines, on the other hand, facilitates the flow of other bodies, and shapes the choreography of these other bodies surrounding the potentially disruptive yellow line.

Maintenance of space through constant movement of things and bodies is only visible when space is limited. Any apartment needs organization, and Japan is not the only country to create infrastructure for the blind. Yet in Japan it is not enough to organize your apartment once, as there is no one proper place for many things that move with the shifting of the function of the space. Similarly, without maintaining awareness through meaningless-to-the-blind coloring of the infrastructure, the lines might help the physically impaired, but not the rapid flow of bodies. Space maintenance is not a one-time act, but a continual process.  

Introducing The Maintainers Blog

The Maintainers conference and related publications have been a big and unexpected success, spurring conversations around the globe. Several conference attendees as well as complete strangers have encouraged us to keep the conversation going. One of the ways in which we'll be doing this is by creating this blog. Over the coming weeks, we will be putting up several kinds of blog posts, including reflections from conference attendees, meditations on the meanings and methods of maintenance studies, and guides for further reading.

We want this to be an open and fruitful conversation. In this spirit, we strongly encourage you to send proposals for posts—though in all likelihood we will not be able to accommodate every proposal. We are especially keen to hear from practitioners, that is, real Maintainers who are out there in the world keeping things going. We are also particularly interested in increasing the geographical and national diversity of the conversation. How do these issues look from different places and different perspectives around the world? But any idea for a post is worth considering. Proposals can be sent to

Tomorrow morning, Yulia Frumer, a historian of Asian science and technology and professor at Johns Hopkins University, will get a conversation started by reflecting how themes of maintenance play out in her research in Japan.