Repair

The contributors to this series have raised core questions around the problems and possibilities of infrastructure. But what does it mean to fix it?

As anyone familiar with the literature on infrastructure will recognize, this question has deep roots. One of the more intriguing and oft-cited provisions of Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder’s (1996) seminal definition of infrastructure is its tendency to “remain invisible until breakdown,” submerged beneath the ebb and flow of ordinary life and function. The same basic idea animates Geoffrey Bowker’s (1994) call for infrastructural inversion, which would reveal infrastructure through an imaginative effort to reverse figure and ground, text and context, in our dealings with the systems around us. These interventions, in turn, have longer histories: whether we look to John Dewey’s (1922) insistence on breakdown as the starting point of consciousness or Martin Heidegger’s (1962) distinction between tools that are “ready-to-hand” and “present-at-hand,” moments of breakdown and the shock of recognition they occasion are central to the revelation of infrastructures in their settled and smoothly functioning forms.

Yet moments of breakdown are also central to the basic operation of infrastructures and the condition of their vaunted weight and durability in the world. For all of their impressive heaviness, infrastructures are, at the end of the day, often remarkably light and fragile creatures—one or two missed inspections, suspect data points, or broken connectors from disaster. That spectacular failure is not continually engulfing the systems around us is a function of repair: the ongoing work 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” (Jackson 2014, 222).

This proposition, which can be described as a form of “broken world thinking,” leads to subtle but important shifts in our approaches to infrastructure. It reminds us of the extent to which infrastructures are earned and re-earned on an ongoing, often daily, basis. It also reminds us (modernist obsessions notwithstanding) that staying power, and not just change, demands explanation. Even if we ignore this fact and the work that it indexes when we we talk about infrastructure, the work nonetheless goes on. Where it does not, the ineluctable pull of decay and decline sets in and infrastructures enter the long or short spiral into entropy that—if untended—is their natural fate.

Attending to repair can also change how we approach questions of value and valuation as it pertains to the infrastructures around us. Repair reminds us that the loop between infrastructure, value, and meaning is never fully closed at points of design, but represents an ongoing and sometimes fragile accomplishment. While artifacts surely have politics (or can), those politics are rarely frozen at the moment of design, instead unfolding across the lifespan of the infrastructure in question: completed, tweaked, and sometimes transformed through repair. Thus, if there are values in design there are also values in repair—and good ethical and political reasons to attend not only to the birth of infrastructures, but also to their care and feeding over time.

Finally, approaching infrastructure from the standpoint of repair highlights actors, sites, and moments that have been absented or silenced by stories of design and origination, whether critical or heroic. In the anthropology of technology, this perspective has helped to disrupt the primacy of design and designers, as well as the equally limited dichotomy of designers and users. The payoff has been twofold: empirical, in opening up new standpoints and possibilities of knowledge and experience around infrastructure, and ethical, in bringing to light forms of work and relationality often neglected in contemporary discourses on technology. As repair reminds us, there are spaces of subjectivity and innovation beyond the one-sided stories of systems that we tell. People inhabit these systems, and attending to repair may help us better see and tell their stories.

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Mobile phone repair worker in the Gulistan underground market, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed.

Thinking in this way also helps us to draw links between infrastructure studies and other areas of anthropological concern. From Mary Douglas’ (1966) classic reflections on dirt  as “matter out of place” to feminist-inspired work on care, attending to repair opens up new aspects of the rich, multifaceted relations between humans and things that have long been a hallmark of anthropology. It also provides caution and corrective to some of anthropology’s capital-letter tendencies, underscoring the contingency, precarity, and could-still-be-otherwiseness of many large and seemingly unassailable systems: Market, Capital, Modernity, and so on. To forget repair is to risk taking these systems too much at their word, granting them a power and permanence they may not, in fact, deserve. Borrowing from Max Weber’s (2001) metaphor of the iron cage, it is to see the iron but miss the rust.

Of course, an analytic of repair leaves many good and important questions unanswered, while reconnecting us to others in orthogonal, possibly unsettling ways. Some of these questions concern points raised eloquently by other contributors to this series: around ruin, accretion, or the nature of materiality, for example. Other contributions suggest possibilities that are combinatorial in nature: repair as a species of mindfulness, or repair as a way to rethink ends and beginnings. All of these are good tools to think with as we continue in the endless project of fixing anthropology itself.

References

Bowker, Geoffrey C. 1994. Science on the Run: Information Management and Industrial Geophysics at Schlumberger, 1920–1940. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dewey, John. 1922. Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper. Originally published in 1927.  

Jackson, Steven J. 2014. “Rethinking Repair.” In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, edited by Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot, 221–40. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Star, Susan Leigh, and Karen Ruhleder. 1996. “Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces.” Information Systems Research 7, no. 1: 111–34.

Weber, Max. 2001. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Stephen Kalberg. Los Angeles: Roxbury. Originally published in 1905.