🧺 Make Space for Maintenance
How creative industries exploit emerging countries + BONUS content
Hi everyone! Long time no write. It’s been a busy few months. Since last time I wrote you to all, I’ve accomplished the following:
participated in the Reboot Student Fellowship (and got an essay published!) ⚡
helped run a nationwide UX case competition 👩🏫
got high-paying gigs and a dream internship 🤑
trained and filmed for a dance competition 💃
acquired a prestigious scholarship 🤫
finished my sophomore year of university (finally…) 😴
My lovely Reboot group (techxlabor supremacy) <3 shoutout to Anh, Tanya, Ethan, Lena, and Matthew (best mentor)!
Phew…that’s a lot. Despite all I’ve learned this time, I don’t have much to show for it (yet). So for now, here’s a republication of my Reboot essay. If you haven’t read it before, here’s your chance to. If not, no worries; I’ve curated a lot of resources that may spark your interest. Enjoy!
Ursula Le Guin’s "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" proposes that the first manmade tool wasn’t the spear, but the receptacle. We’ve ignored this history because we instead gravitate to what she calls the "killer story": after all, bashing beasts is more exciting than potting plants.
But what about the life story? While “heroes” are building products and scaling companies, who are the people oiling gears and separating garbage? These are maintenance workers. Despite their importance, they remain unseen and underappreciated. They are stigmatized under capitalist and colonialist oppression. Only by critically examining these systems can we give maintenance the dignity it deserves.
the labor of maintenance vs. creativity
Maintenance work includes anything that enables systems to keep running by taking care of their parts: products, environments, and people. This includes jobs like kitchen staff, quality assurance, and customer service. Many of these roles are considered unskilled or semi-skilled labor, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. In fact, maintenance work can be toxic to the human body and psyche (e.g. garbage collectors and content moderators). Even those with safer jobs still have to bear grueling conditions: subpar facilities, constant overtime, demanding bosses and customers alike. Many maintenance workers are also contractors, which implies low wages, a lack of benefits, and an uncertain future.
Contrast maintenance work with its opposite: creative work. Creating meaningful new forms — ideas, technology, content — is the responsibility of the creative class, composed of knowledge workers (e.g. managers, lawyers, academics) and super-creatives (e.g. engineers, designers, architects). Because they are considered skilled, educated workers, they often enjoy high salaries, generous benefits, and flexible working hours. Creatives are afforded both the material security and occupational prestige that maintenance workers lack.
However, the creative labor we celebrate is unimaginative: it relies on the age-old exploitative system of colonialism. As capitalism redefined creativity as engaging in entrepreneurship and productivity, white-collar creatives have been valorized in opposition to maintenance jobs: “Creative work is good because it encourages growth, and all other work is not because it is boring and ultimately unfulfilling. It...champions mobility of labour, rather than being ‘stuck’ in monotony, “ writes Oli Mould in Against Creativity.
The economic differentiation between creative, high-tech workers and maintenance workers divides and destroys worker solidarity. For example, creation is often accompanied by creative destruction, the deliberate dismantling of established practices in the name of disruption. This gives creatives the license to “move fast and break things," including industries, communities, and careers. Waste is a byproduct of the creative process too. Deteriorated machinery, legacy code, violent content — someone has to handle all this. And when no one wants to do the dirty work, the marginalized are left to deal with it.
Today, so-called creative industries have brought forth a modern Manifest Destiny: Global North’s expansion through technology and innovation.
In the article “Tech Colonialism Today," Sareeta Amrute explains how the tech industry and its labor force displays characteristics of a colonial relationship. First, it's hierarchical. It’s no coincidence that America’s creative class skews white (73.8%), or that Silicon Valley’s blue-collar contractors are mostly BIPOC (58%). Second, it's extractive. Big Tech’s products require extracting resources from the Global South: land for factories, minerals for hardware, data for insights. They justify extraction by providing services in exchange (e.g. Facebook Free Basics); but in reality, they’re often setting up self-serving systems of domination. Finally, it’s exploitative. "Ideal" contractors come from former Western colonies in Southeast Asia because of their low costs, cultural identification, and language fluency. Thus, colonial legacies are commodified by tech companies for profit. To survive within capitalism, these workers are forced to maintain the very enterprises exploiting their countries.
case study: the philippines
One of the most impacted nations is the Philippines, which is both the country that has spent the most time online in the world and a top destination for outsourcing labor. However, the Philippines' high-tech reputation has been built on a foundation of abuse. For instance, during COVID-19, call center agents have to work in-person without proper social distancing protocols or protective equipment. They are forced to sleep at the office to work in American time zones. Meanwhile, content moderators review images, videos, and posts from all over the world, exposing them to a whole spectrum of violence from suicide attempts to extremist murders. Finally, workers aren’t the only ones who’ve suffered from tech's collateral damage. Most people in the Philippines only have access to Facebook, and not the entire Internet, which has left them vulnerable to fake news and radicalization.
Amidst this chaos, the Philippines continues to grow as a source of talent for international tech companies. Founder Oliver Segovia writes that “Silicon Valley is turning young Filipino workers who might have been satisfied with a call center job a decade ago into a creative and entrepreneurial class seeking a deeper connection with innovation-driven and mission-focused companies.” But is such a relationship possible when Silicon Valley remains obsessed with first world problems? In the end, the development tech brings to the Philippines remains extractive: gentrification has been taking over cities, while brain drain has been taking away people. Lacking resources, the country has no choice but to continue being codependent. True change will not happen in the hands of the colonizers.
rewriting our story
Manifest destiny might be the status quo, but it doesn't have to be the future. With the power and privilege they have, creatives shouldn’t be perpetuating existing systems; instead, they should be reimagining reality. This requires going beyond the individualistic nature of technological solutionism and instead shifting colonial relationships through collective action. Organizing has benefitted workers across eras of globalization. However, this is more challenging for the Global South. For instance, many Filipino activists have become victims of illegitimate arrests and extrajudicial killings. Those in the Global North who can organize should advocate for their international counterparts (e.g. collaborating with unions, sympathy strikes). Solidarity built around shared oppression should transcend borders.
We need to work together and take care of each other. This is easier said than done. On Le Guin’s receptacle, Siobhan Leddy writes: “Unlike the spear... the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff. One thing is entangled with another, and with another.” Organizing is messy too, but linear creativity is not a solution. If we want to create a better future, we must look towards the past, where resistance has been simmering under oppressive systems. The work is already being done. Now, in the spirit of maintenance, we must believe in it enough to nurture it.
🎨 Amazing Art
These past few months, I've been going down the rabbit hole of everything related to labor. I'd consider this Are.na channel a mood board of all my learnings! Featured above are some of my favorite blocks from this channel. You can check out the whole thing here.
Manifesto for Maintenance Art
Manifesto for Maintenance Art is an exhibition proposal where maintenance work is portrayed as art itself. The artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, is known for her interest in maintenance; her well-known pieces include washing the steps of a museum and shaking hands with sanitation men. My favorite part of the manifesto is the first part (which I first discovered in How to Do Nothing), where it describes the death and life instinct. Having these compared to innovation and maintenance sparked so many ideas for my essay! You can read the whole thing here.
🤯 Interesting Innovations
Command Browser helps you make sense of the internet. It's an upgraded Safari: you can highlight webpages, save information in journals, integrate it with other apps like Notion, and more! All it costs is $15 (but you can do a free trial for 2 weeks) for lifetime use. This app was a lifesaver for me while I was writing this essay; without it, my research would've been all over the place. You can try it out here.
Since Obsidian doesn't have a mobile app (yet), I was looking for alternatives that would allow me to take notes on my phone (since majority of my reading would take place there). Mem.ai seemed to do the trick! It's basically Apple Notes, but powered by a graph database. Taking notes is blazingly fast, requires no hierarchy, and easy to search. You can check it out here (let me know if you need an invite)!
Postulate consolidates the entire writing process, from research to publication. You can first use it to store your thoughts and inspirations. Then, you can turn these snippets into posts, where they can be easily referenced and linked. There are also conversion metrics that can help motivate you in writing. Interested? You can check it out here.
📖 Rabbit Hole Reads (and Listens!)
Working in Public
The inspiration of this essay! In this book, Nadia Eghbal does an anthropological exploration of open source software development, from how it's made to how it's maintained. I believe this book is insightful not just for developers, but for creators of all kinds. I recommend listening to her interview with David Perell here.
REPAIRING INNOVATION: A Study of Integrating AI in Clinical Care
A recommendation from my mentor, Matthew! This report discusses the importance of repair work in the face of disruptive/innovative technologies. It even delves into emotional/cognitive labor (which nurses do to help integrate AI into healthcare). Here's a favorite quote of mine:
"The process of repair during innovation is generative because it is not about recovering a status quo, but rather about creating new practices and possibilities...it (repair work) requires creativity, skill, and ingenuity—and should be valued as such."
You can read it here.
Maintainers Anonymous is a podcast where Henry Zhu (maintainer of Babel) chats with maintainers of code, cities, and infrastructure. They talk about their process, motivations, and struggles as they learn in public. You may listen to it here.
🧘 Wise Words
If you already find joining communities tiring, imagine running them. Community building is a taxing endeavor that minorities often have to bear the brunt of. Read more in this tweet:
Almost a year ago, I found writing too scary to start. Now, it’s still intimidating to me, but here I am, six issues later! It’s all thanks to you guys that I keep reading and creating. It’s a pleasure to be able to share my thoughts (500~ tabs worth) with you all.