Repairing Worlds

Introduction to the WIRE Project.

The WIRE project is an acronym composed of the central question the project asks: Where is repair? Over a decade ago geographers Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift published a foundational paper that sought nothing less than to, "begin the resurrection of the activities of repair and maintenance in the social sciences" (Graham and Thrift, 2007: 2). Nearly a decade before Graham and Thrift's paper, two economists at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank noticed that, "[m]ost models of aggregate economic activity, like the standard neoclassical growth model, ignore the fact that equipment and structures are maintained and repaired" (McGrattan and Schmitz, 1999: 2). The intervening years saw some attention paid to maintenance and repair, but only very recently does anything like a sustained research program in the social sciences appear to be emerging. Why should this be so, we wondered? And, what might the previous delegation of maintenance and repair to the peripheries of social science research mean for how fundamental concepts used to interpret the economy--and, indeed, society--enact the worlds they claim to study?

In the emerging literature, found especially in the interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies (STS), the fundamental importance of maintenance and repair to the very possibility of social continuity is being recognized. There are literal and figurative lessons to be learned about how collective life might be more amiably and justly organized in a world "altered beyond return (though not necessarily beyond repair)" (Jackson, 2014: 221-222). In our own work, we examine the maintenance and repair of information and communication technologies (ICT) as questions of economic, ecological, and social importance. Following the action of these practices is our way in to both the more straightforward implications of ICT maintenance and repair (ICT M&R) (e.g., what sort of job prospects does the sector offer, for whom, where, and under what conditions?), but also its more figurative aspects as well (e.g., how does ICT stand in for both the dreams of technological futurity as well as the nightmares of social and environmental breakdown signified by electronic waste?).

The WIRE project is premised on a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods (e.g., surveys, oral history interviews). It also involves fieldwork in Peru, China, and elsewhere. As the WIRE project unfolds, it will:
  1. Map how ICT M&R supply- and customer-networks are spatially organized locally, regionally, and globally, and how they intersect with other economic sectors;
  2. Determine how ICT M&R contributes to a location over time in terms of economic actions they may both facilitate and impede (e.g., waged employment, mutual aid, self-employment);
  3. Discern how the pace of technical change of ICT products impacts the formal and informal ICT M&R sectors and how businesses in these sectors adapt to such technical change;
  4. Evaluate the possibilities and limits of ICT M&R for material and energy conservation by determining (a) the degree to which ICT M&R mitigates waste arising from initial production (i.e., in resource extraction and manufacturing); (b) what discards arise from the formal and informal ICT M&R sectors themselves, and how those discards are handled; and (c) what opportunities exist, or could be formulated, to handle those discards in situations that may lack infrastructure for handling their hazardous components and materials; and
  5. Share these empirical findings within academia to reframe the economy as a more diverse object of analysis that includes M&R, and with non-academic audiences (e.g., policy-makers, social justice advocates) to promote equitable access to resilient ICT infrastructures and to bring enhanced attention to the work of M&R as a core, rather than a peripheral, economic activity.  

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