Software, maintenance and me

A shorter form of this post was previously published on the SSI Fellowship Blog.

I’m a slightly left-field Software Sustainability Institute fellow. I’m in the 2019 cohort, and my Fellowship is structured around the Festival of Maintenance, a celebration of those who maintain different parts of our world, and how they do it, recognising the often hidden work done in repair, custodianship, stewardship, tending and caring for the things that matter.

So what has this got to do with software?

From the start, the Festival has been about ideas of maintenance across different fields, and seeing what they have to say to each other. As I wrote back in 2018:

Maintainers can be found in many contexts, including nature, software, infrastructure, communities, industry, information, arts and heritage. The Festival will bring together traditional disciplines of maintenance, repair and stewardship, with new forms such as supporting digital products, sustaining open source software, and moderating online communities. The Festival aims to share learning around maintainer skills and tools and how maintenance is resourced and rewarded, and to boost the morale of maintainers across sectors with inspiring ideas and stories. The 2018 Festival of Maintenance will start a lasting conversation across communities of maintainers and stewards, building shared practices, and raising awareness more widely of the value of this work and where it sits within our society.

The digital space is really interesting here and the interests of the SSI fit in several ways.

There is maintenance of our software infrastructures - for instance, the underlying open source systems which underpin so much of today’s computing, internet and research tools, such as Linux, or OpenSSL. There’s end user software too, which we might not think of as infrastructure, although we depend heavily on some of the apps and platforms which drive our every day interactions - Twitter, say, or Google Drive, or even just the simple todo list app I use on my phone - these all take maintenance, because digital systems are not unchanging and isolated. Next, there’s data and content, whether it’s research data or the descriptions of how software works, which often needs maintenance to keep it up to date (think of Wikipedia) and usefully interconnected and annotated and available (think of arxiv, or the Internet Archive). Even though storage might seem cheap or even free, the bits have to be preserved, we need to be able to open old file formats in some way, to keep disks spinning and so on. Finally, computing is really about people, and looking after the teams, communities and individuals who work in and around software is also essential maintenance - and this social maintenance and care is often undervalued and appreciated.

There are many examples of this in this hackernews thread.

Much of what we’ve found most interesting in the Festival conversations are unexpected perspectives, and they often touch on some of the aspects of maintenance which make it hard to communicate and to prioritise. Maintenance is generally neglected, for multiple reasons - power, status, short-termism, collective action problems, moral ‘lousyness,’ and biases (see The Maintainers July 2019 article). Maintenance is a difficult topic to communicate - comprising care, repair, cooperation and accountability. This is compounded in the case of digital infrastructure maintenance by the invisibility and complexity of much digital infrastructure, the gaps in the general population’s digital understanding, and the strangeness for many people of aspects of the internet-era knowledge economy.

Open source software is interesting in terms of maintenance status. In many fields, maintainers are low status, often overlooked. In OSS, they may be volunteers or overworked or stressed, but to be a maintainer of a tool or package is a high status role, good for professional development and prestige. Ford Foundation and others have been supporting research into the world of critical digital infrastructure - a subset of software maintenance - and the results are starting to come out. This work is uncovering insights into issues around the privilege of volunteer labour, diversity and inclusion, and the incentives around open source maintenance.

So at the Festival of Maintenance, we’re exploring these things and more. To quote my colleague Naomi Turner:
Far from being merely ethereal, the internet will not work without reliance on physical components which require a vigilant level of maintenance. Artists James Bridle and Ingrid Burrington turn our attention to the complexity and socio-political dimensions of these networks, as well as their physical degradation.

… At FoM, we’re also interested in the maintenance needed to make the internet work in the day-to-day. Ben Ward’s talk provided an insight into the battle of maintaining a system of Internet of Things sensors — a tangled mess of navigating expiring domain registrations, whilst protecting the sensors themselves against the wind, rain and moss. Our interest also extends to open-source software and the programmers who have a dual role in building and maintaining it — at the same time exploring the care of digital collections and archives at the British Library, or the community management without which Wikipedia would simply not exist.

At the 2018 Festival, we heard from Chris Mills who talked about the work of the MDN writers’ team at Mozilla, maintaining open standards, and the open web. Openness makes it easier to do things, and to maintain things. There’s a lot to maintain at Mozilla and in the open source documentation space though!

We also had a great talk from Adrian McEwen of DoES Liverpool on how to organise the work of fixing and improving things in a volunteer community - something which applies to many software communities as well as shared spaces and makerspaces like DoES. If you mention something that’s broken, it’s easy for folks to respond “well volunteered!” and hand the work to the person who noticed the problem — discouraging people from actually highlighting problems. DoES have developed a “Somebody should” list on GitHub, which tracks things that need to get done and when they are fixed. This also recognises the labour of maintenance, as you can see who did something, and also builds knowledge of how things were fixed.

Back to Naomi:

… Maintenance activity is also characterised by a series of ill-fitting metaphors, which negatively affects how we tell each other about it. David Heath, Tech Lead at the Government Digital Service, notes that ‘One of the biggest problems is the underlying industrial or manufacturing metaphor. Gardening is a more appropriate metaphor for software-based systems’. Apart from in fairly technical and/or well-established industries, ongoing maintenance is generally not measured or accounted for.
We’re very interested in how we can communicate about maintenance better, because this ought to make it easier to get others to recognise and prioritise this work. Nonetheless, we’ve found that it’s useful to be a little mysterious ourselves at the Festival! In 2019’s Festival report I wrote:
the Festival perhaps resists definition, and maybe that’s partly how we are differentiated from The Maintainers, the Maintainerati and other groups. It’s interesting to consider how the maintenance ‘agenda’ is shaped by the different backgrounds and disciplines that people bring to the Festival – and the challenges of drawing an audience that represents diversity across dimensions. We are aware of the lack of diversity in some of the fields that naturally gravitate towards maintenance ideas, and hope to remain broad and interesting and accessible to both maintainers and the ‘maintenance curious’ from all backgrounds. It is tempting to categorise and structure these conversations, but we are starting to think that our role is to start conversations and be provocative, and to allow and encourage all kinds of people to be involved.
Starting with software in mind has been an incredibly helpful way into what we now see as a larger “maintenance mindset.” Coming from a technology background, I hope we continue to include digital systems and open source as part of our conversations at the Festival. It’s a sector where the incredible hype and focus on the new and innovative is especially pernicious, and where balancing this with consideration of sustainability, care and stewardship is essential.

We draw much inspiration from the work of Lee Vinsel and Andy Russell, including their seminal 2016 article “Hail the maintainers”:
Innovation is a dominant ideology of our era, embraced in America by Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the Washington DC political elite. As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

… The trajectory of ‘innovation’ from core, valued practice to slogan of dystopian societies, is not entirely surprising, at a certain level. There is a formulaic feel: a term gains popularity because it resonates with the zeitgeist, reaches buzzword status, then suffers from overexposure and cooptation. Right now, the formula has brought society to a question: after ‘innovation’ has been exposed as hucksterism, is there a better way to characterise relationships between society and technology?

There are three basic ways to answer that question. First, it is crucial to understand that technology is not innovation. Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old. In his book, Shock of the Old (2007), the historian David Edgerton examines technology-in-use. He finds that common objects, like the electric fan and many parts of the automobile, have been virtually unchanged for a century or more. When we take this broader perspective, we can tell different stories with drastically different geographical, chronological, and sociological emphases. The stalest innovation stories focus on well-to-do white guys sitting in garages in a small region of California, but human beings in the Global South live with technologies too. Which ones? Where do they come from? How are they produced, used, repaired? Yes, novel objects preoccupy the privileged, and can generate huge profits. But the most remarkable tales of cunning, effort, and care that people direct toward technologies exist far beyond the same old anecdotes about invention and innovation.

Second, by dropping innovation, we can recognise the essential role of basic infrastructures. ‘Infrastructure’ is a most unglamorous term, the type of word that would have vanished from our lexicon long ago if it didn’t point to something of immense social importance.

… Third, focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce. If gadgets are to be profitable, corporations need people to manufacture, sell, and distribute them. Another important facet of technological labour comes when people actually use a product. In some cases, the image of the ‘user’ could be an individual like you, sitting at your computer, but in other cases, end users are institutions – companies, governments, or universities that struggle to make technologies work in ways that their inventors and makers never envisioned.

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.
Russell and Vinsel also point to some of the challenges in software:
One important topic of conversation is the danger of moving too triumphantly from innovation to maintenance. There is no point in keeping the practice of hero-worship that merely changes the cast of heroes without confronting some of the deeper problems underlying the innovation obsession. One of the most significant problems is the male-dominated culture of technology, manifest in recent embarrassments such as the flagrant misogyny in the ‘#GamerGate’ row a couple of years ago, as well as the persistent pay gap between men and women doing the same work.
Sadly, maintenance is not a ‘sexy’ topic and infrastructure - if it is not your core business, creating value directly - is also not particularly interesting to the executives who assign resources within tech businesses.

Whilst academic understanding of digital infrastructure, and deeper appreciation of the challenges and opportunities around open source infrastructure development and stewardship, is growing, there is still a gap in terms of making this something that key in the tech sector are ready to invest in. Such executives need encouraging narratives (not just tales of things that have gone wrong) aligned with their aims. We want executives and teams to be able to tell compelling, positive maintenance stories - drawn from across industries and activities - that deepen their understanding of digital infrastructure and make cases for supporting it. We hope the work of the Festival of Maintenance will uncover new stories like this, by exploring maintenance across our world, and helping people understand it - and perform and support it - in new ways. Thinking about the maintenance of software (and the communities that do it) has been an incredibly helpful way in to the field of maintenance. We want to use the Festival to help make it less opaque for others, too.

As we become ever more dependent on the internet and computing, across ever more aspects of our lives, we need to maintain them appropriately.

As a 2018 attendee said, these conversations at the Festival are

“Like discovering an entire other hemisphere of the world.”