Repair and “broken world thinking”

Another stimulating paper about repair is "Rethinking repair" by Steven J. Jackson. In this book chapter, the author advocates for a shift in social sciences, a shift from a modernist perspective to address what he calls “broken world thinking” which “asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design… are the key themes and problems facing new media and technology scholarship today." In other words, "broken world thinking" implies acknowledging the importance of fixing/reconfiguration/recombinations. Practically speaking, this kind of statement means that "repair" is relevant to address:

"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 in this connotation has a literal and material dimension, filled with immediate questions: Who fixes the devices and systems we “seamlessly” use? Who maintains the infrastructures within and against which our lives unfold? But it also speaks directly to “the social,” if we still choose to cut the world in this way: how are human orders broken and restored (and again, who does this work)?"

For Jackson, addressing repair is pertinent wrt to innovation and innovative practices:

"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 experi- ence 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 in attics and landfills or shipped overseas to Africa or Asia.) In scientific computation and collaboration, the language of innovation is generally reserved for new and computationally intensive “bright and shiny tools,” while repair tends to disappear altogether, or at best is relegated to the mostly neglected story of people (researchers, information managers, beleaguered field technicians) working to fit such artifacts to the sticky realities of field-level practices and needs. In both cases, dominant productivist imaginings of technology locate innovation, with its unassailable standing, cultural cachet, and valo- rized economic value, at the top of some change or process, while repair lies somewhere else: lower, later, or after innovation in process and worth. But this is a false and partial representation of how worlds of technology actually work, when they work."

Hence the following question/role for the social sciences (and probably design + engineering): "How might we begin to reverse this dominant view, and reimagine or better recognize the forms of innovation, difference, and creativity embedded in repair?" ... which leads him to define a sort of research program "with special attention to the existence, dynamics, and tensions of innovation beyond moments of ideation, design, and up-front adoption." In the context of repair, there a variety of questions to be addressed:

"can repair sites and repair actors claim special insight or knowledge, by virtue of their positioning vis-à- vis the worlds of technology they engage? Can breakdown, maintenance, and repair confer special epistemic advantage in our thinking about technology? Can the fixer know and see different things—indeed, different worlds—than the better-known figures of “designer” or “user”? Following on the claims of Hegelian, Marxian, and feminist theorists, can we identify anything like a standpoint epistemology of repair?"

Why do I blog this? The excerpts listed here show a set of general questions and problems to be addressed. Ethnography – and design research – can certainly help here, and I'm wondering about how to address these in conjunction with electronic objects such as smartphones, tablets or game consoles. Such issues also echo a lot with current field research in mobile phone repair shop.

Mobile phone repair expert needed


A crappy picture taken on a rainy day. One of the local mobile phone repair shop here in Geneva is looking for "technicien(s)", i.e. an expert in iOS, android and Windows Phone repair. SIM cards unlockins and OS flashing seem to be the most important skills, as indicated on the sheet. The picture is curious too, it looks the guy's blowing in the USB connector – a common trick that some of you may have used on NES cartridges back in the days.

Why do I blog this? As such shops appear here and there in the city, it's interesting to observe how they work, and what happen in there (it's basically one of the sites I'm interested in, as a field researcher). Who's qualified? How do you become qualified for this? Who will give one's "CV" (résumé)? 

On repair

Two guys repairing a computer on an electronic market in Seoul, Korea.

Two guys repairing a computer on an electronic market in Seoul, Korea.

New topic, new project line here: the repair and maintenance practices of electronic objects. Nothing fancy so far, I'm just writing a research grant. But, as usual, it's hard not to start the project before getting the grant. Maybe the grant writing is already the beginning of the project, which is a common situation these days when you're on foot in academia and one foot out.

Anyway.  I'm collecting material (research reports, papers, articles, et al.) and doing a little bit of field observation. It's funny because it forces me to revisit content I've blogged about here. For instance this paper called "Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance" by Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift (blogged back in 2009) seems to be a seminal reference on the topic of "repair ethnography".  This paper is important as it shows how the focus on repair and maintenance can be seen as a way to address a "missing link" in social theory. The authors use these topics in order to "understand of modern societies and, particularly, cities".

Some elements that caught my attention :

"Things only come into visible focus as things when they become inoperable – they break or stutter and they then become the object of attention. [...] it is in this space between breakdown and restoration of the practical equilibrium – between the visible (that is, ‘broken’) tool and the concealed tool – that repair and maintenance, makes its bid for significance." 

As Virilio expressed earlier, and as stated by Graham and Thrift, the accident is part of the thing:

"it becomes increasingly difficult to define what the ‘thing’ is that is being maintained and repaired. Is it the thing itself, or the negotiated order that surrounds it, or some ‘larger’ entity? Similarly, it can be argued that the accidents that stem from so many breakdowns are not aberrant but are a part of the thing itself. To invent the train is to invent the train crash, to invent the plane is to invent the plane crash, and so on"

As a consequence, a focus on repair and maintenance is important for various reasons, some are described in this paragraph:

"maintenance and repair also illustrate the importance of human labour and ingenuity. [...] when things break down, new solutions may be invented. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that this kind of piece- by-piece adaptation is a leading cause of innovation, acting as a continu- ous feedback loop of experimentation which, through many small increments in practical knowledge, can produce large changes [...] maintenance and repair can itself be a vital source of variation, improvisation and innovation. Repair and maintenance does not have to mean exact restoration. Think only of the bodged job, which still allows something to continue functioning but probably at a lower level; the upgrade, which allows something to take on new features which keep it contemporary; the cannibalization and recycling of materials, which allows at least one recombined object to carry on, formed from the bones of its fellows; or the complete rebuild, which allows some- thing to continue in near pristine condition. And what starts out as repair may soon become improvement, innovation, even growth. The examples are legion: the constant tinkering of consumers with consumer goods, which can certainly lead to customization and may even lead to redefinition, as in the case of the early automobile"

This leads them to highlight the importance of expertise

"information and communications technologies have largely replaced the system of automobility as both the most central and yet the most likely to break down, not least because of design flaws that are widely acknowledged but seem to be subject to a law of inertia (Norman, 1998). Whole generations are becoming expert at rebooting, defragging and downloading new security patches."

Which leads to the importance of designing products with this in mind:

"Products could be designed so that they are easily maintained, repaired and upgraded, using light materials and structures and various forms of metering (Van Hinte and Beukers, 1998). Technological paradigms oriented towards the fetishistic generation of accelerating waves of quickly disposed of hard products could be reorganized around longer- term and sustainable systems of service delivery designed from the outset to be easily and continually upgraded"

The author give the following examples for that matter:

"Alternatively, repair and maintenance activities could be actively expanded, so that commodity production and waste were both minimized (Verbeek, 2004). Design consultancies like the Eternally Yours Foundation in the Netherlands (Eternally Yours, 2004), have already attempted to design products that would have a new and more knowing relationship to maintenance and repair."

Why do I blog this? The paper offers both a theoretical perspective (on how focusing on repair/maintenance is a shift in social theory), and a series of insights about where to look.