Shannon Mattern

Minimal Maintenance

October 2, 2019

The author wishes to thank the organisers of the 2019 Liverpool Maintenance Fest, who commissioned the talk that became this essay.


Not long ago in Manhattan, I attended a fancy, invitation-only panel discussion concerning a certain new luxury urban development. Despite facing harsh critique from some of the policy and design experts in the room, the project’s mastermind and his real-estate lawyer both spoke of their work as a net gain for society because growth, they reminded us, is an inherent good. It’s pretty much a natural law: if things develop properly, they get bigger. As sociologist Harvey Molotch argued decades ago, “the very essence” of an American city is to operate as a “growth machine.” [1] We aspire to see our children —and our bank accounts— grow to be big and strong. Politicians proudly take credit for booming stock markets and rising GDPs. Digital platforms celebrate their billions of global users and research libraries, the millions of items in their collections. Bigger is Better and Growth is Good. Right?

Well, not always. In the early seventies, the Club of Rome commissioned an MIT-based research team to study the predicaments of mankind. The resulting report, Limits to Growth, used computer modeling to show that growth trends in population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion would reach their peak, and precipitate decline, within 100 years. [2] Since then, exacerbated global challenges—including climate change, continuing extraction, unfettered capitalism and mass consumption—have sustained economists and ecologists’ interest in the limits to growth. [3] The contemporary “degrowth” movement, Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgios Kallis explain, isn’t against growth, per se; it calls, instead, for a critique of growth as an end in itself, for the “decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and for the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective.” [4] In other words, economic value isn’t all that matters, and it shouldn’t be our primary telos, or end goal. Degrowth values other things and introduces other metrics for them, such as “sharing,” “conviviality,” “simplicity,” “care” and common resources.

While economists and environmentalists continue to challenge the “growth imperative,” practitioners and managers in adjacent fields—technology, design, and cultural heritage, to name just a few—have sought to overturn another truism: that the new is necessarily improved and innovation has inherent virtue. According to historians of technology Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, the fetishisation of novelty began with 19th century industrialism, and reached its pinnacle in the obdurate ahistoricity and disruption culture of Silicon Valley. [5] Over the past few years, as we’ve borne witness to the rise of internet factionalism, cyber-espionage and digital fascism, many of us have come to appreciate the danger of embracing innovation for its own sake, and of allowing massive commercial tech platforms to supplant our public spheres and utilities. Along with similar collectives committed to repair and care, The Maintainers have emerged in response to these technological and political-economic concerns, many of which overlap with those of the Degrowthers: the waste of planned obsolescence, the environmental effects of unsustainable supply chains, the devaluation of care work, the underfunding of maintenance, and so forth.

In spite of this, the Maintenance and Degrowth communities don’t always acknowledge each other. As we inch towards our growth thresholds, however, it is increasingly important for both to appreciate the existential stakes involved in maintenance and care, and the need to develop actionable plans for degrowth.

Even in 1972, the authors of the Limits of Growth recognised that more efficient recycling and better product design and engineering that promoted longevity and facilitated repair were among the myriad tactics people could use to avoid collapse. They alluded frequently to “maintenance,” but in a systems-dynamics sense—as in the maintenance of populations, or of capital. Degrowthers value community repair shops and maintenance activities, and feminist economists have been sure to point out the centrality of carework to degrowth. [6]

We’ve also noticed strong cross-pollination in an expanding range of fields. In 2017, the Verbier Art Summit in Switzerland questioned the art world’s unthinking pursuit of broader collections, more visitors, bigger buildings, and more spectacular art fairs—all of which add to an institution’s maintenance and conservation obligations. Those gathered at this (paradoxically luxurious) event wondered about the potential for degrowth, and how to identify other, more meaningful, metrics and values, such as visitor engagement and educational applications. [7] Anthropologist Jennie Morgan extends this discussion to all manner of museums, advocating that institutions abandon the pursuit of encyclopedic collections and perpetual preservation, and imagine more flexible, partial models. [8] They might consider pruning collections and developing more selective accessioning policies, or learn from the politics of recent repatriation practices, wherein misbegotten art is returned to its sites of origin or former stewards. [9] Some cultural heritage institutions are also contemplating “curated decay” or “graceful degradation,” accepting that even the most conscientious maintenance cannot prevent change or combat entropy. [10]

Baruchello, Gianfranco. La grande biblioteca. 1976.

Pencil, Indian ink, crayons, felt-tips, cardboard, newspaper cut-out, photos, photocopies, grains, bamboo, insects, coins, stones, cotton thread, nib, ruler, tulle, fabric, vinavil, aluminium, wood, glass. (213 x 204 x 21 cm / 83 7/8 x 80 1/3 x 8 1/3 inches / 71 x 102 x 21 cm.)

 

The past year has evidenced even more productive intersections between Maintenance and Degrowth. In introducing her Repair Acts collective at this year’s re:publica conference, artist Teresa Dillon cited environmental humanist Eileen Crist’s call for “pulling back and scaling down,” “welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies and habitats for the sake of a higher, more inclusive freedom and quality of life.” [11] The implication is that scaling down requires, or allows us to, take better care of what remains—an insight shared by many feminist economists, who remind us that degrowth need not entail universal downsizing. Instead, a reduction of those things that are “destructive to humans and the ecological foundations of human life” could offer an opportunity to grow other kinds of resources—like social infrastructure and care services–and to measure our worth not by the GDP, but by our commitment to “environmental sustainability, social justice, and well-being.” [12]

In June, archivists and librarians met in Baltimore to consider how a changing climate would transform their work, and to assess their obligation to promote environmental justice. [13] Drawing inspiration from Limits to Growth, one group of special collections curators reflected on the field’s tendency to “measure progress by rate of collection growth” and to assay prestige in accordance to size of collections. [14] Their conversation echoed that of the museum curators at Verbier two years earlier, with the discussants in Baltimore proposing to look to other libraries’ practices of building shared collections—that is, sharing resources between multiple institutions and maintaining the systems for their circulation—and deaccessioning, or weeding, superfluous materials; which involves deciding what particular objects should no longer be in their care. [15]

Failed Architecture. Under Construction. 2019.

Presents a fictional neighbourhood constructed from discarded building materials scavenged from demolition sites: fractions of concrete, shards of glass, fragments of window frames. Accompanying flash fiction describes life in a city constantly under construction. Under Construction is presented on the occasion of the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale.

 

Just this past week, architects and urbanists began gathering in Oslo for the 2019 Architecture Triennale, themed “Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth.” [16] As the curators explain, their choice of theme was motivated by the fact that architects typically serve a profit-driven industry that strives to maximise property values and relies on resource-intensive construction techniques and exploitative labour practices. Yet many individual architects are driven by a different ideology that’s more aligned with the ecofeminists and the Degrowthers. The Triennale is thus allowing designers to imagine other, post-growth worlds, even as it also represents a training ground for architecture following collapse, once we’ve exceeded the limits to growth. [17] What will become of architecture and urban design after the world’s population, production, and GDP have plateaued, when consumption is stagnant and we are “forced to divert funds toward repair and adaptation in the face of climate breakdown”? [18] The curators ask:

What kind of architecture will we create when buildings are no longer instruments of finance? What kinds of spaces will we inhabit when cultivation, rather than extraction[,] is the goal? … How will the built environment be procured in an economic system that doesn’t seek to exploit global differences in wage levels, land prices, and environmental legislation?

Whether we reach such a turning point preemptively, by choice; or by necessity—because the economy and the environment demand it— architects and urbanists, like curators and librarians before them, will have to face the nature of their work outside the growth machine.

Early press indicates that individual exhibitors are grappling with the recycling of building materials, the sharing of information resources, and the creation of “intentional” communities. [19] It remains to be seen whether any of the Triennale’s exhibitors explicitly address maintenance and repair, though many urbanists and economists have established that conscious degrowth or imposed downsizing, as we’ve seen in many postindustrial cities, will require an increased attention to these matters. For a capitalist system, they argue, growth is essentially a structural imperative, and even the slightest slowdown can affect employment, poverty, and social tensions, “as well as potential environmental harm … due to lower investments in environmental protection or industrial maintenance.” [20] Environmental scientist Daniel Florentin notes that a decrease in water consumption in a shrinking city—which might seem beneficial insofar as it would represent the conservation of a natural resources—actually incites a host of new concerns, including a rising water table which threatens subterranean structures; and stagnant water in underused pipes, which can create health problems. Utility infrastructures become too big for their populations, “generat[ing] additional network maintenance costs” and raising service costs. [21]

How to maintain a focus on maintenance and care? As Florentin explains, downsized cities are often regarded as “fascinating testbeds for new urban experiments: limited resources oblige stakeholders to turn to new financing mechanisms and alternative institutional arrangements leading to the emergence of new ways of producing the urban fabric.” [22] Cities from Detroit to Roubaix have sought to develop creative uses for vacant lots or to incentivize citizen-led rehabilitation efforts. Urbanists sometimes try to concentrate remaining residents into more densely populated neighbourhoods and focus on maintaining and upgrading infrastructure in these urban islands. Planner Angelos Varvarousis and architect Penny Koutrolikou emphasise the potential activation of a new post-growth urban “commons”—resources and practices that resist commodification and privatisation, and that prioritise collective creation and public use. They mention “commoning” opportunities for housing, local food networks, and green spaces. [23] This is already taking place through the Transition Network and its global affiliates, which support communities that seek to move away from a “growth-based consumerist model” and prepare themselves for a time when “economies are by necessity and inevitably more localized.” [24] The City Repair Project engages in similar work. [25]

Carpenter, Tei, David Knowles, Jesse LeCavalier,  Julia Pyszkowski,  Dan Taeyoung and Chris Woebken. The Intentional Estates Agency [IEA]. 2019.

The IEA adopts and modifies the desire mechanisms and commodity logic of a real-estate agency to engage issues of degrowth. It offers a brochure of sixteen portfolios of degrowth options that draw from a catalog of historical, contemporary and speculative intentional communities and social experiments from around the world. It is presented on the occasion of the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale.

 

In all their sprawl, environmental vulnerability and heavy materiality, cities serve as a convenient index for the “limits to growth.” When these have been exceeded, we’ll see the effects—indeed, the collapse—on our city streets. One sector that has seemed relatively immune to such material limitations is Silicon Valley, though with recent concern surrounding digital disinformation, hacks and leaks, cyber-attacks and threats to both consumer privacy and national sovereignty, we may just be approaching “peak tech.” It has at least become apparent that more information, more access, and more innovation aren’t always better.

Evgeny Morozov laments that, until recently, our efforts to “think of different ways to relate to technology and information”—that is, to model Degrowth in the virtual realm—have “smack[ed] of privatized and transcendentalist solutions that work at the level of individuals”: digital detoxing, installing “mindfulness” apps, altering the privacy settings on our phones, or obscuring the cameras on our laptops. [27] Yet the threats imposed by tech’s unlimited growth are both individual and collective: they compromise our personal privacy and mental health, as well as our networked utilities, our geopolitical dynamics, and our global ecologies. These tiny devices are tethered to ever-growing pit mines, supply chains and electronic waste dumps—all of which require hazardous maintenance work. And the artificial intelligence behind the popular platforms has become more energy intensive than private cars. [27]

Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google depend as much on the extraction and the expenditure of environmental resources as any other growth-oriented industry. By that same token, their “limits to growth” will, similarly, confront us on our city streets, our coastlines, and our farm towns, on private properties and in the commons. As we contemplate legal, economic, and ethical strategies for limiting tech’s rampant growth, we need to look beyond privatised and individual solutions like setting “screen-time limits” or quitting Facebook. As with other degrowth endeavours, we need to strategise at the community, national, infrastructural, and ecological scale—and to acknowledge the crucial importance of maintenance and care at each of those scales.

That said: if we were to de-grow a digital universe monopolised by Alphabet and Verizon, how might we start to repair the vast disparities in informational resources and sustain widespread—and critical—digital literacy? How would we build and maintain infrastructures that promote community-responsive connectivity? How would we recognise the legacies of digital redlining and data colonialism, offer reparations, and care for those communities that have historically been marginalised and exploited? How can we develop regulations and digital pedagogies that prioritise “sharing,” “simplicity,” “conviviality,” “care” and “commoning” above growth?

Whether we find ourselves amidst the vast terrain of the commercial internet; in our libraries, archives and museums; or between the parks, public housing facilities and utility infrastructures of our cities, thinking beyond growth as an end in itself requires attending to maintenance and care: who deserves it, who performs it, and to what end. This new world is one that we can choose to build deliberately and in incremental steps—at a Triennale or a brainstorm at a conference–or it could be forced upon us, necessitating triage and reactionary care. We should start planning for the former.


[1] Molotch, Harvey, “The City as a Growth Machine”. American Journal of Sociology 82:2 (1976): 310.

[2] Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, III, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Universe Books, 1972: 23.

[3] D’Alisa, Giacomo, Federico Demaria and Giorgios Kallis, eds., “Foreword,” Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. New York: Routledge, 2015: xxiii.

[4] Ibid., 3. In 1972, the Austrian social philosopher André Gorz allegedly introduced the term “décroissance” by asking: “Is the Earth’s balance, for which no-growth–or even degrowth–of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?”; quoted in “A History of Degrowth,” Degrowth.

[5] Russell, Andrew and Lee Vinsel, “Hail the Maintainers”. Aeon (April 7, 2016); Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel, “Making Maintainers: Engineering Education and the Ethics of Care,” in The Innovator Imperative, eds. Matt Wisnioski, Eric Hintz and Marie Stettler Klein. Cambridge: MIT Press (forthcoming) [preprint PDF].

[6] See, for instance: Akbulut, Bengi, “Carework as Commons: Towards a Feminist Degrowth Agenda”. Degrowth (February 2, 20170); Dengler, Corinna, “The Monetized Economy Versus Care and the Environment: Degrowth Perspectives on Reconciling an Antagonism”. Feminist Economics 24:3 (2018); Eicker, Jannis and Katharina Keil, “Who Cares? A Convergence of Feminist Economics and DeGrowth”. Exploring Economics (2017); and Neumann, Matthias and Gabriele Winker, “Fighting for Care Work Resources”. Degrowth (December 13, 2016). 

[7] Ruf, Beatrix and John Slyce, eds., Size Matters!: (De)Growth of the 21st Century Art Museum. Koenig Books / Verbier Art Summit, 2017; Siegal, Nina, “At Museums, Maybe It’s Time for ‘De-growth”. New York Times (March 11, 2017); Verbier Art Summit, “Size Matters: (De)Growth of the 21st Century Art Museum”. Verbier, Switzerland, 2017.

[8] Morgan, Jennie, “De-growing Museum Collections for New Heritage Futures”. International Journal of Heritage Studies (October 2018). See also Heritage Futures.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] DeSilvey, Caitlin, Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. University of Minnesota Press, 2017. See also Mattern, Shannon, “The Big Data of Ice, Rocks, Soils, and Sediments”. Places Journal (November 2017).

[11] Crist, Eileen, “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature”. Environmental Humanities 3:1 (2013): 129-47; see Dillon, Teresa, “Repair Acts: Care, Reuse and Maintenance Cultures”. re:publica (Berlin, May 2019).

[12] Dengler, Corinna, “The Monetized Economy Versus Care and the Environment: Degrowth Perspectives on Reconciling an Antagonism”. Feminist Economics 24:3 (2018); Eicker, Jannis and Katharina Keil, “Who Cares? A Convergence of Feminist Economics and DeGrowth”. Exploring Economics (2017); Neumann, Matthias and Gabriele Winker, “Fighting for Care Work Resources,” Degrowth (December 13, 2016).

[13]Response and Responsibility: Special Collections and Climate Change”. Baltimore, MD, June 18-21, 2019.

[14] Callahan, Maureen, Shannon K. Supple, William Stingone and Chela Scott Weber, “Limits to Growth”. RBMS Conference, June 19, 2019.

[15] Hswe, Patricia. Twitter, June 19, 2019; Prelinger, Rick. Twitter, June 19, 2019. See also Mattern, Shannon, “Middlewhere: Landscapes of Library Logistics”. Urban Omnibus (June 24, 2015).

[16] Oslo Architecture Triennale, OAT 2019. See also the XII FEMSA Biennial, “Poetics of Degrowth. How to Live Better With Less?” Monterrey, Mexico, October 13, 2016–January 22, 2017; and Brussels-based ThalieLab’s 2018 residency on ecological transition and degrowth, “From Ecological Transition to Degrowth and the Effective Use of Art”. Art & Education (September 7, 2017).

[17] Minkjan, Mark. “Degrowth Is About Redistribution by Design, Not by Collapse”. Failed Architecture (September 17, 2019).

[18]Oslo Architecture Triennale”. e-flux architecture (October 17, 2018). See also Planning 2052 Conference, Rich Mix Arts Centre, London, January 25, 2019.

[19] Minkjan, Mark. “Degrowth Is About Redistribution by Design, Not by Collapse”. Failed Architecture (September 17, 2019) and Woebken, Chris, “Intentional Estates Agency, 2019”.

[20] Briens, François and Nadia Maïzi, “Investigating the Degrowth Paradigm Through Prospective Modeling: The Case of France”. IAEE European Conference, Rome, Italy, October 28-31, 2014.

[21] Florentin, Daniel, “The Challenges of Degrowth in Cities”. Field Actions Science Reports 18 (2018): 18.

[22] Ibid. 19. See also Ryan, Brent D., Design After Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012; Schindler, Seth, “Detroit After Bankruptcy: A Case of Degrowth Machine Politics”. Urban Studies 53:4 (2016).

[23] Varvarousis, Angelos and Penny Koutrolikou, “Degrowth and the City”. e-flux architecture (2018).

[24] Hopkins, Rob, “An Introduction to Transition US from Rob Hopkins”. YouTube (April 16, 2009). See also the Transition Network and Transition United States. While the Transition Network espouses a holistic methodology for effecting transition, one of their repeat tactics is holding Repair Cafes, where community members can learn to fix their own gadgets, furnishings, clothing, and equipment.

[25] The City Repair Project.

[26] Morozov, Evgeny. “Stunt the Growth”. Slate (January 22, 2014).

[27] Hao, Karen. “Training a Single AI Model Can Emit as Much Carbon as Five Cars in Their Lifetimes”. MIT Technology Review (June 6, 2019).


Shannon Mattern is a Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. Her writing and teaching focuses on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies and mediated sensation and exhibition. She is the author of The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities (2007), Deep Mapping the Media City (2015), and Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (2017), all published by University of Minnesota Press. In addition to having writing dozens of articles and book chapters, she contributes a regular long-form column about urban data and mediated infrastructures to Places. She collaborates on public design and interactive projects and exhibitions.