You know that tingly feeling you get when you read something, look at a picture, or hear a song that subtly and effortlessly changes the way you think?
I don’t know about you, but for me thoughts, ideas and emotions can often feel like puzzles that stubbornly demand a solution, until something or someone helps make the problem evaporate or dissolve. Suddenly I can zoom in, out or around the problem, and it is utterly transformed. As that philosophical trickster Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:
It is not surprising that the deepest problems are in fact not problems at all.
A few months ago, a tweet from Matt Kirschenbaum had this effect on me.
Steven Jackson’s “Rethinking Repair,” an “exercise in broken world thinking,” is one of the most remarkable things I’ve read in some time.
— Matthew Kirschenbaum ((mkirschenbaum?))
It wasn’t the tweet itself, so much as what the tweet led to: Steven Jackson’s Rethinking Repair, which recently appeared in the heady sounding Media Technologies Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society.
I’ve since read the paper three or four times, taken notes, underlined stuff to follow up on, etc. I’ve been meaning to write about it here, but I couldn’t start…I suppose for reasons that are (or will become) self evident. The paper is like a rhizome that brings together many strands of thought and practice that are directly relevant to my personal and professional life.
I’ve spent the last decade or so working as a software developer in the field of digital preservation and archives. On good days this seems like a surprisingly difficult thing, and on the bad days it seems more like an oxymoron…or an elaborate joke.
At home I’ve spent the last year helping my wife start a business to change our culture one set of hands at a time, while trying to raise children in a society terminally obsessed with waste, violence and greed…and a city addicted to power, or at least the illusion of power.
In short, how do you live and move forward amidst such profound brokenness? Today Quinn Norton’s impassioned Everything is Broken reminded me of Jackson’s broken world thinking, and what a useful hack (literally) it is…especially if you are working with information technology today.
Writing software, especially for the Web, is still fun, even after almost 20 years. It keeps changing, spreading into unexpected places, and the tools just keep evolving, getting better, and more varied. But this same dizzying rate of change and immediacy poses some real problems if you are concerned about stuff staying around so people can look at it tomorrow.
When I was invited to the National Digital Forum I secretly fretted for months, trying to figure out if I had anything of substance to say to that unique blend of folks interested in the cross section of the Web and the cultural heritage. The thing I eventually landed on was taking a look at the Web as a preservation medium, or rather the Web as a process, which has a preservation component to it. In the wrapup I learned that the topic of “web preservation” had already been covered a few years earlier, so there wasn’t much new there … but there was some evidence that the talk connected with a few folks.
If I could do it all again I would totally (as Aaron would say) look at the Web and preservation through Jackson’s prism of broken world thinking.
The bit where I talked about how Mark Pilgrim and Why’s online presence was brought back from virtual suicide using Git repositories, the Internet Archive and a lot of TLC was totally broken world thinking. Verne Harris’ notion that the archive is always just a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of a window into process, and that as such it is extremely, extremely valuable is broken world thinking. Or the evolution of permalinks, cool URIs in the face of swathes of linkrot is at its heart broken world thinking.
The key idea in Jackson’s article (for me) is that there are very good reasons to remain hopeful and constructive while at the same time being very conscious of the problems we find ourself in today. The ethics of care that he outlines, with roots in the feminist theory, is a deeply transformative idea. I’ve got lots of lines of future reading to follow, in particular in the area of sustainability studies, which seems very relevant to the work of digital preservation.
But most of all Jackson’s insight that innovation doesn’t happen in lightbulb moments (the mythology of the Silicon Valley origin story) or the latest tech trend, but in the recognition of brokenness, and the willingness to work together with others to repair and fix it. He positions repair as an ongoing process that fuels innovation:
… broken world thinking asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design as conventionally practiced and thought about are the key themes and problems facing new media.
I should probably stop there. I know I will return to this topic again, because I feel like a lot of my previous writing here has centered on the importance of repair, without me knowing it. I just wanted to stop for a moment, and give a shout out to some thinking that I’m suspecting will guide me for the next twenty years.