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Maintenance and Care During and Beyond the Pandemic – BPR Interviews: Shannon Mattern

Shannon Mattern is a professor of anthropology at The New School in New York City. She previously served as a faculty member in The New School’s School of Media Studies and earned a Distinguished Teaching Award. Her teaching and research focus on the intersections between archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. Professor Mattern has authored three books, and her fourth book, A City Is Not a Computer, will be published in August 2021. She regularly contributes to public design and interactive projects and exhibitions and serves on the board of various journals and organizations, including the Metropolitan New York Library Council. She also writes a regular long-form column for Places, an open-access journal focusing on architecture, urbanism, and landscape.

Alice Jo: In a 2018 article, you argued that social stability is mediated by the everyday work of maintenance and care for physical and social infrastructures. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected our ability to practice maintenance and care? 

Shannon Mattern: The pandemic has revealed the brokenness in many of our infrastructures, including healthcare, education, and access to internet connectivity. The fact that reliable access to the internet informs people’s access to healthcare and education has become blatantly obvious because so many institutions have been virtualized. One of the sayings about infrastructure is that it often doesn’t reveal itself until it breaks; we can conveniently forget about its existence because it flows underneath our everyday activities, except for the people who work to maintain it. I think people came to realize how dependent their daily comforts are on folks in the background: bringing packages to their doors, taking away their trash, delivering food, maintaining a supply chain so they have toilet paper, food, and grocery stores. Folks were genuinely appreciative of a lot of this previously invisible labor and of the fact that so many healthcare workers were putting their own lives in danger to maintain larger public health.

How has the pandemic made maintenance and care harder? The isolation of people: the fact that we can’t physically get together and social infrastructures have been challenged, which, in a way, shines a light on their vitality and their importance. But it makes it harder to do things together. That said, people have found workarounds. We have mutual aid organizations. We have a lot of forms of grassroots organizing through virtual realms. People have found ways to develop alternative ad hoc infrastructures to make up for where the more official systems have fallen short. 

AJ: Have the concepts of maintenance and care been part of your thinking for a long time?

SM: It has been a subtext underlying pretty much all of my work throughout my entire academic career. I don’t know that I always use the word “maintenance” explicitly, but I have always written about things like libraries and the background labor that goes into making our information resources available. There is so much fancy theory around the archive, but not so much about libraries. I was interested in libraries, in part, because they do a lot of the maintenance work in our society. They not only maintain public information resources, but they serve as vital social infrastructure when other social services fall short.

There’s a lot of care invested in my own pedagogical approaches: the way I design courses and make all my course materials openly accessible. So caring about care has been something that has informed the way I do everything in relation to teaching too. 

AJ: What are some ways to integrate maintenance and care into education?

SM: One of the big themes in the whole maintenance theory that has emerged in the past several years is that it has been presented as an antidote to the fetishization of innovation. We tend to present the rise of STEM education and the fact that the economy depends on everybody learning how to do science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s good to have literacy and facility in those areas, but that cannot be divorced from the critical thinking and historical contextualization that the liberal arts provide. We need to rethink what we regard as valuable, useful forms of knowledge versus those that are more cosmetic, supplemental, or feminized in some cases. 

We may also have to teach programming to not just be all about the new release, the new product, but also about maintaining the code. There have been some interesting studies about programming labor, which show that the majority of it is actually maintenance work. You know, we fetishize the new thing that’s released. But, really, most of what people’s hours are spent on is unglamorous maintenance type labor. So making that visible and legitimating care work and domestic work could be built into the curriculum in various ways.

The whole Academy is also based on the idea of the individual genius, individual authorship: “I own this idea,” or “I must cite you because you own this idea.” There are more feminist and collaborative ways to practice citation, but the ownership or territory model promotes this idea of proprietary natures rather than maintaining and caring for our community. We all support one another and we’re caring for a discourse network that produces much greater knowledge into the world than if we all have our own little fiefdom.

AJ: In the future, do you think libraries and other public spaces of knowledge will have to design completely new infrastructure online to maintain their purpose or effectiveness?

SM: “What’s the future of the library?” is a perennial question in the field because it’s always changing thanks to new cultural forces, socioeconomic dimensions, and technologies. People have proclaimed the death of the library for a long time. The computer was going to kill the library. Amazon was going to kill the library. But it has just never happened. In light of the pandemic and the closure of many physical buildings, people have been asking this question again.

I am on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, and I think that there is going to be a recalibration. Digital services, including electronic lending, digital programming, public events, reference services, and the provision of social services, ramped up dramatically. That shift is going to continue, but it might recalibrate a little bit when things become normal — if there is going to be a normal — or when physical intermingling becomes possible again. I think a lot of library directors, maintenance workers, and other leaders in the field will have to reassess what the physical space is uniquely qualified to do and how the digital and the analog can work together in new ways.

AJ: How can the methodologies of librarians and archivists guide our ethical frameworks about big data and privacy issues? 

SM: Most librarians and archivists are committed to values like patron privacy, equitable access, and things of that sort. So I think it’s helpful to ask questions like, “If you collect data from someone, how can you ensure that it’s used responsibly? How can you preserve it?” Preservation is a concern because so much digital media is so ephemeral. I mean, the lifespan of a digital media object is much shorter than, say, a newspaper printed 250 years ago that we still have access to. Hyperlinks rot all the time. So it’s important to be concerned about responsible preservation, as well as responsible access to make sure that only particular parties who have agreed to certain terms of use have access to data sets. 

But also asking the question, “Does the data even need to be collected?” That’s the thing that I think some archivists and librarians might prompt us to ask. Rather than running the risk of having sensitive data and then worrying about how it’s used, maybe you just don’t put up sensors and cameras everywhere. Maybe you don’t collect the data to begin with. I think they’d also encourage us to realize that not all of the world’s knowledge that is worth knowing is renderable as data. Sure, you can make a video recording, but there’s material culture, physical archives, oral histories, embodied forms of knowledge, and other forms of cultural production in which the physicality, material, and analog nature of it is an integral part of the way culture is generated, shared, and preserved within a community. Archivists and librarians recognize the value of materiality, and they would remind us that not everything can be turned into digital data.

AJ: The transition to the Zoom interface has changed our lives. What do you think of its impact from a design perspective? 

SM: I imagine that there are probably lots of architecture and urban planning studios that are asking that question right now. It’s especially pertinent to people who are thinking about how to design schools, offices, or any type of workplace of the future. We’ve tried for decades to have more flexible forms of labor where people don’t have to come in and sit in an office every day. We’ve seen that it’s possible for folks to be self-motivated at home and do a good amount of labor to serve their employers. So I imagine that there’s a real concern within the commercial real estate realm that all these empty offices will be emptied for good. What are you going to do with downtowns if you no longer have the need for every physical body employed by an organization to be sitting at a desk on the same floor at the same time? Most of us are sick of Zoom. We don’t want to live online. But maybe there are ways to provide more caring infrastructures through labor by acknowledging the fact that they might have domestic responsibilities or mental health needs that require them to work more flexibly. Designing physical spaces that interface well with digital resources could allow for more caring infrastructures in a variety of different spheres. 

And also going back to your library question, some of the library directors I was talking to have thought that the library should take a leadership role in serving as a kind of digital commons. Lots of people propose that rather than relying on corporations like Google and Twitter — who have no obligation to public service — to provide our digital infrastructure, maybe this is an opportunity for libraries to become a digital public sphere or to develop new platforms for public education.

AJ: In your recent article in Places Journal about the use of plexiglass for coronavirus safety, you write about how the pandemic is changing the material makeup of our world. What kind of long-term impacts will the pandemic have on the physical design of cities? 

SM: People have realized that public parks, sidewalks, interstitial spaces, and all the outdoor spaces in between buildings are really vital to circulation, people’s mental health, and social infrastructures. Hopefully that will inspire — when the country is in a better economic position — greater funding and realization that these vital infrastructures require maintenance and care. There’s also some concern about the use of things like surveillance technologies under the assumption that they will serve public health, like using thermal sensors for contact tracing purposes. But those same technologies can be very readily used for other types of more nefarious surveillance, which tends to include things like racial profiling. So the things that we might think could be really beneficial contributions to the public realm or to urban design also potentially have negative flip sides. 

AJ: That makes me wonder about the educational side of how everything is on Zoom for universities right now. For example, do you see a purpose in restricting class sizes?

SM: This is another realm where we can see the opportunities and costs. The opportunities could be that, sure, we can democratize education. We can open up bigger classes. Maybe we’ll reduce some of our costs because we don’t have to pay for expensive real estate, campuses, and sports facilities on campus anymore. But the flip side is that you lose the social rite of passage that comes with being on a campus together. For many universities that have taken a financial hit, they’re using this opportunity to propose structural changes to the way higher education is offered. They could potentially say no to more seminars because there’s limitless opportunity on Zoom. If every class is going to be a lecture, that could be a reason to fire people. So it could create a lot of economic and employment precarity and really reshape the nature of pedagogy. I mean, what’s the future of the seminar if everything can be a 300-person class?

AJ: Media infrastructure really shapes how social movements are pushed forward these days. What are the strengths and weaknesses of practicing activism in digital spaces? 

SM: The way we build social movements is very much shaped by the media that is available to us. Digital media has made the connection of a global network possible. You can find like-minded activists all around the world. You can use encrypted platforms to connect in a secure space. You can coordinate impromptu protests. But as we have seen, especially with an event like the insurrection on January 6th in Washington, D.C., there are all kinds of bad things that can happen with digital activism too. There is the potential for online harassment online. There’s the difficulty of content management, with people wondering if we should have maybe built our society differently and relied on libraries and public institutions to be our search engines and our repositories, instead of Google and Twitter. Because these corporations are our public infrastructure in the digital realm, we are dependent upon their policies. So what is their policy for free speech? How do they conceive of those policies and moderate abusive content? These are some of the risks that are presented to us when we rely on digital technologies for not only social movement organization, but also basic social activity in general.

AJ: How do you think designers or creators of media platforms can address issues like compassion fatigue, which comes from spending so much of our lives online?

SM: There have been calls for a long time to make media less sticky. And by sticky, I mean keeping people immersed in it — refreshing to get the newest content, seeing how many likes you get. I’m using the word “addiction” with scare quotes, because I think there’s some danger of thinking about media as addictive, but there have been discussions about more responsible consensual design of technology. Consensual tech thinks about how to design technology that gets consent from people who are aware of what they’re using and how they’re being used on different technologies. Media is like the water we’re swimming in now; it’s hard to step outside and reflect on how it’s impacting us because we live in it all the time. Allowing for a refusal or escape could maybe provide a bit more of a critical barrier there. 

AJ: What makes you hopeful about the future?

SM: Our election in the United States, even though it’s not the most progressive candidate. The fact that a regime change has happened was a much needed shift, so that makes me somewhat hopeful. Other things that make me hopeful are how resilient students have been, how wonderful my classes have been, how responsive and creative and mutually supportive my students have been. Recognizing the need to care for one another has reminded them that scholarship does not have to be a space of competition and intimidation. It can also be a space of mutual support and encouragement. The fact that so many of them said that made me cry. It was heartening to feel like my class was a space that helped them realize this. I think that was hopeful for them. And for me, that they realized that. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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