I ran across a really interesting article last week, and the points it makes have been rocketing around my head as I consider what’s broken (and why) in the small world many of us live in, not to mention how we can fix those broken things. I’d really recommend taking a look at it: “Hail the maintainers: Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more”, by Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell.

The gist of the authors’ point–that we overvalue innovation and undervalue the maintenance of our existing technologies–is one that ought to resonate particularly with librarians, especially those of us who have toiled in the world of catalogs and the maintenance of same.

“The most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago. This shift in emphasis involves focusing on the constant processes of entropy and un-doing – which the media scholar Steven Jackson calls ‘broken world thinking’ – and the work we do to slow or halt them, rather than on the introduction of novel things.”

One of the things that struck me in this article was the connection the authors made between ‘innovation’–associated with high tech activities primarily seen as the male domain, and ‘maintenance’, the ‘women’s work’ of the age of technology.

“We can think of labour that goes into maintenance and repair as the work of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things. Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep. This realisation has significant implications for gender relations in and around technology. Feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track.”

The authors make the point that these skewed values resonate throughout our society. Notice how boring most people consider the maintenance of our physical infrastructure–roads, bridges, pipelines, etc. Of course, most of us agree that there needs to be more of it, and more resources aimed in that direction, but ho hum, talk about it in any detail? Not on your life.

For those of us considering the data infrastructure to support the rebuilding and expansion of the data sharing that libraries have done for many decades, we see the same thing. The Open Metadata Registry (OMR to those of us who prefer to speak in acronyms), now too often dismissed as ‘old technology’, is a case in point. Back in 2004 when we received funding from the National Science Foundation, there weren’t many people thinking about data ‘infrastructure’–particularly for vocabulary data, but we were. Back in the day, we often talked about the OMR in the context of the plumbing beneath sidewalks and buildings. Few of us who are not plumbers think about plumbing — we all assume that it’s there, but is rarely a topic in non-plumber gatherings until something critical breaks, or a community is systematically poisoned.

And even plumbers innovate, in ways that few of us understand, much less think about. The water debacle in Flint, Mich. has brought up the problems of old pipes, but not many discussions go beyond that. In the world of vocabulary management, the OMR has been building and maintaining vocabularies for well over a decade now, and we know a lot about it. In particular we know where improvements should be made, and how OMR services can best support the activities needed by the folks building instance data. We’re also thinking about how to better sustain the effort over time.

But the OMR was built to work within an environment where there are many such services, supporting other communities looking at the same changes ahead that we see in the library data environment. For lots of reasons, that array of services hasn’t come about, though we see activity in the structural metadata world–new formats, old formats morphing, etc.–effort almost entirely devoted to semantic churning, not services. Much effort is being put into creating and publishing Linked Open Data, but very little consideration is being given to how that data will need to change over time and how the entire plumbing infrastructure of publishing and consuming that data must support the need for ongoing maintenance of both the data and the public and private vocabularies that describe that data.

[This is the first of two posts, the second proposing some ways to move forward]

By Diane Hillmann, April 21, 2016, 9:42 am (UTC-5)

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