Our view of technology as cutting-edge, innovative and as something that is always emerging is in stark contrast to maintaining and repairing things we already have. Maybe we should think more of things – or as my friend Davis Baird would say ‘thing-ness” rather than the concepts of technologies that project almost exclusively into the future and do not concern themselves too much with what we have right now. The maintenance and repair of existing things is old-fashioned, reeks of craftsmanship and ‘black art’ – what philosophers call tacit knowledge- and does not lend itself to ambitious, glossy and hyped power-point visions of what will be once we solve that one critical technical problem standing between us and ‘the city on the hill’. That kind of modernistic rhetoric is constantly regurgitated by people who see themselves as visionaries but have little or no direct or even ‘interactional’ expertise with respect to the technologies and things they pitch.
This kind of alienation from things is not possible in countries like Nigeria. Like in other developing countries having things implies a maintenance intense co-existence with them. The Maytag repair man is alive and well in Africa. It starts with the origin of the things being discarded, used and predominantly foreign: raised CAFE standards for vehicles, implementing cash-for-clunker incentives in the US and Europe result in a surge of decades old cars being shipped to developing countries in particular due to its proximity from Europe to Africa. In many cases the historical roots become apparent by identifying cars in African cities. In former French colonies decade old Citroens and Peugeots including the classic “deux-cheveaux” still do battle with VW Golfs and Mercedes. The same is true for washing machines, refrigerators, generators, television sets, radios and even more recently cell phones. The recycling and re-using of products that have been spit out of our consumption cycles largely due to an artificially shortened market-driven life cycle creates an enormous maintenance and repair infrastructure that has a tremendous economic impact. The main traffic arteries out of Abuja are lined with tiny repair shops bristling with activity where things are simply kept running. And to keep things running means adapting them to local supplies, available skills and cost-effective solutions. Recycled rubber, metals such as scrap cooper and steel as well as the ubiquitous use of corrugated metal sheets are combined to repair and create new parts that appear to stem the tide of time and mechanical decay of vehicles, two-stroke motorcycles and other moving hybrids by an almost continuous process of re-engineering. Another striking difference is the engagement of the customer in this process. You don’t just drop off your car, pick it up after work and pay the bill. The owner becomes involved in finding a solution for the problem and helps fix it – it is hands-on rather than hand(s)-off. This collaborative act allows for quality and price control, transfers ‘thing knowledge’ to the owner which might permit him to fix a reoccurring problem by himself. Furthermore, it also creates a bond with the craftsman that insures future work and allows for bartering, which is an important shadow economy in all developing countries. Some of us might remember the fuzzy warm feeling of conspiring with “our” mechanic on how to keep an old car running.
This process of adaptation to local use and resource availability is a ray of hope for the future of Africa, since it taps into and continuously challenges the ingenuity of local talent. The savvy craftsmen and artisans are the foundation of a yet untapped workforce for maintenance intensive use-oriented technologies such as solar water heaters, photovoltaic cells and water purification systems.
And maybe there is an important lesson for us: maintaining our infrastructure (public buildings, sewers, roads, bridges, and electrical grid) will be one of our biggest challenges and could provide the emergence of a new class of craftsmen. Maybe focusing on maintenance technologies is not so old-fashioned after all? And would it really be that bad to see how long you can keep that old car on the road?