maintenance and memory

10 October 2020

When I opened my RSS feed to check the latest edition of IT and Libraries I could scarcely believe my eyes. There at the end of the list of articles is Integrated Technologies of Blockchain and Biometrics Based on Wireless Sensor Network for Library Management. It promised to be a horrifying nightmare combining all the worst technologies of our current moment, and it didn't disappoint - by which of course, I mean it turned out to be even worse than I expected.

Has ITAL been pwned?

Firstly, we need to better define some terms used in this rather strange paper.

Blockchain solves the conundrum of how to turn ransomware into accelerated climate change. Estimates of exactly how much energy is used by Bitcoin and friends vary - from "only as much as the whole of Estonia" to "single handedly ensuring fiery death for all mammals" - but whatever the true number is, nobody disagrees that by design proof-of-work blockchains use astounding amounts of energy in order to perform some basic accounting.

Biometrics are like a password but easier to use because you don't have to remember it. The big advantage of biometrics is that when the database is breached you simply change your face to a new one, or replace your eyeballs, or create new fingerprints.

Wireless Sensor Networks a.k.a. "The Internet of Things" (IoT) solve the problem of no longer being able to simply add radium to to your uninspiring product in order to make it seem modern. With IoT, toy manufacturers can now solve the problem of not being able to record and store the inner thoughts of children; lightglobe manufacturers can solve the problem of customers still being able to see in the dark after the venture capital runs out; and the Dutch East India Company Amazon has been able to solve the multiple problems of customers needing to interact with freight transport workers, white Americans having to share public streets with Black people, and governments having to go to the bother of installing surveillance devices in the homes of citizens before spying on them.

The biggest problem solved by the Internet of Things, however, is that of private communications being too secure. Hand the problem to companies with no information security experience, sprinkle a bit of IoT magic on it, and you can finally sleep at night knowing that every message you send can be read by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Nice work 👍.

Whilst we have now established the individual problems these technologies set out to solve, you might be wondering what particular problem this proposal to combine them aims to solve. Alas, when you finally reach the end of the article, crying into your screen, you will remain none the wiser. Like George Mallory contemplating Mount Everest, the author appears to want to combine these technologies simply because "they're there".

When we look a little closer, however, the vision becomes even weirder. There seem to be only three possible explanations for the existence of this article. Either:

  1. it was actually written by GPT-3 and ITAL is following the lead of The Guardian and Aaron Tay;
  2. It's an Ern Malley-style prank;
  3. ITAL has given up peer-reviewing articles; or
  4. All of the above

I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow description of everything that is problematic about this article, but it shows such a questionable understanding of both basic library operations and basic software development principles that ITAL really needs to explain how it came to publish it. If we gloss over the particular details, however, you've read this sort of article many times.


Blockchain is designed for recording transactions across distributed, untrusting independent actors, in a way that deliberately prevents deletion of historical data (the database is "immutable"). What libraries need and want is the complete inverse of all these things: there could not be a less appropriate technology for managing library loans. Libraries trust members and members trust libraries: that's the deal. Libraries are built on trust, particularity, and free inquiry. These are human qualities, and need human maintenance. The most striking, if mundane, aspect of Integrated Technologies of Blockchain and Biometrics Based on Wireless Sensor Network for Library Management is the unexamined assumption that "library management" is not only possible without human staff, but desirable.

I say mundane because this is not exactly a new idea. The UK has spent much of the last decade turning its libraries into receptacles for old Tom Clancy novels, "managed" by retired busybodies or nobody at all. Purveyors of RFID hardware for libraries spruik integrated systems for controlling door access to staff-free "libraries". All of these pushers of the new shiny and efficient library seem oblivious to the fact that library management consists mostly not of transactions, but rather of maintenance.


Tech bros confusing their success in a very tiny subset of human endeavour for generalised genius in all areas of life is well documented. The case of How Uber Turned a Promising Bikeshare Company Into Literal Garbage is a particularly relevant example:

It was, to JUMP’s longtime employees, a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of business they were in. Uber was running JUMP with the mindset that anything that’s broken can be patched, but, as one employee put it, “a firmware update can’t fix a bike chain.”

But the original JUMP team didn't just understand bicycle maintenance: they also understood that successful public infrastructure requires a huge amount of community maintenance: building relationships, trust, and mutual respect. Prior to the sale to Uber, the company spent month working on "Requests for Proposal" from city governments, developing partnerships with the cities to put infrastructure in the right places, where it would be both useful and accepted by local residents. Towards the end of the article, journalist Aaron Gordon provides a summary of why it was inevitable that venture-capital backed "dockless" share bikes would fail, as they have in both the United States and Australia:

Useful mass transportation doesn’t suddenly appear. It is carefully nurtured from a tiny seedling of a good idea to a fully-formed organism that breathes life into a city. It is a process that takes time and effort and patience as well as money.

But time, effort, patience and money are boring. When things — inevitably — go wrong, it's usually the technology, or the last remaining staff, who get the blame. Sometimes, as in Australia's robodebt clusterfuck, it's the victims themselves who are blamed. Mar Hicks describes in a piece for Logic how decades of under-investment in code maintenance and organisational knowledge was blamed on the entire COBOL language, when America's unemployment payment systems melted down at the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic is, itself, an illustration of simple, pro-social behaviours being much more effective than the latest shiny technology. The richest countries with the most expensive and fancy hospitals in the world have experienced a catastrophic breakdown in their health systems and tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths. The places most effectively dealing with the virus are doing so through low-tech techniques proven to work for centuries: masks, hand-washing, restricted movement, and quarantine.

Anthropologist Shannon Mattern explores similar ideas in a wonderful article in Places. Mattern has written extensively on maintenance, care, and — as our Marxist friends would call it — social reproduction:

We should always ask: what, exactly, is being maintained? “Is it the thing itself,” Graham and Thrift ask, “or the negotiated order that surrounds it, or some ‘larger’ entity?” Often the answer is all of the above.

What, exactly, is being maintained?

Mattern has put her finger on the big question of our time. For GLAM workers, asking "what, exactly, is being maintained?" has thrown up some discomforting answers. Assuming that "preserving the cultural record" is an incontestable good is foolish at best. Whose cultural record? On what terms? In what manner? To what end? Maintenance is politics.

How we approach maintenance is a reflection of our personal and institutional values. The Australian government's recent budget has allocated an undisclosed sum to pay an oil company for advice on how to manage a floating oil platform they owned before it was abandoned, whilst returning unemployment payments to a level where every unemployed single person in Sydney will have to fit into the literally six rental properties they can afford. Australia's first Evangelical Prime Minister flirted with compassion for a few months when COVID hit, but I guess he must have eventually remembered that God Wants You to be Rich.

So we're having a reckoning. Libraries, archives, museums, and art galleries are full of people like this. Soldiers who brought "civilisation" at the end of a bayonet or gun barrel. Wildlife artists who ensured their subjects were good and dead before they sketched them. Missionaries who "preserved" local languages and customs in order to best understand how to eradicate them. "Explorers" who were unembarrassed to create new place names like Massacre Bay, Convincing Ground and Murdering Creek. Our streets, universities, and towns are named after them. Our public parks are mass graves with the statues of violent robbers set on plinths above the bodies.

The "History wars"; the shrieks about "Cultural Marxism"; the armed Police protecting statues of long-dead military men — this is all about maintenance. They're ordering us to keep touching up the gold leaf, and instead we're peeling back the wallpaper to reveal what's underneath. Preserving culture as memory institutions requires constant maintenance. Tape turns to soup, paper desiccates, hard drives fail. But what, exactly, is being maintained? — culture is constantly produced and reproduced, and this requires communities to decide what to remember and what to forget. GLAM workers are in a powerful position to determine what is reproduced through maintenance and use.

Hence the push to remove us. Robots and software don't ask difficult questions. They don't ask whether we should change the date, or pay the rent. They're not interested in Makarrata, or reparations. They don't ask whether ancestors should be repatriated, or how the artefacts came to be locked in a box. They just do what they're told, maintaining the status quo in an endless, self-feeding loop.

A world with no workers, no trust, and no privacy, where nothing ever changes. That's the dream of libertarian-capitalists. Let's not give them any more space in our journals or our conversations: they're taking up enough already.