Staving Off Entropy

It’s not often that I read a newspaper op-ed and a scholarly essay by the same authors on the same topic, but Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel had “Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance!” in the New York Times in the summer of 2017 and then “After Innovation, Turn to Maintenance” in Technology and Culture the following January. Accounting for the different editorial standards for the two platforms, both pieces discuss the same research and train of thought. I recommend reading both, just as I previously recommended their essay on the topic of standards.

In short, people have a tendency to get excited about the new thing, particularly if it’s big and showy, but not so much about maintaining what already exists. The conflation of “technology” with computing over the last few decades has made this problem worse, as computing is a rapidly-developing field where the old is regularly thrown away in rapid generational changes. (Anyone used DOS recently? Actually I have – some of our oldest CAD drawings were created using Generic CADD, a DOS-based program, and I’ve been running in it emulation on my Mac to convert the old drawings to a format that can be read now. That work is, of course, a form of maintenance.)

Old physical items decay. (Old ideas might, too, but I’m not really qualified to discuss that topic.) They are damaged in use by weathering, by improper use, by their surroundings, and by the physical manifestations of general stupidity. Entropy increases over time – the depressing lesson of the Second Law of Thermodynamics – and can only be decreased by adding energy from a source outside the system being studied. In short, old buildings will not heal themselves: we must act to improve their condition. The action can come in big chunks – major repair and restoration – or as a steady stream of maintenance. The first is how I make my living, but we would all do better to spend more time thinking about the second.

I talked about this bit in “The Star Trek Fallacies.” It’s mildly unfair for me to compare fiction to reality in this manner, but on the other hand there are non-engineers who think Trek is in some way an accurate view of future technology. I can’t speak to space travel, but I guarantee that as long as there are toilets, they will occasionally get clogged.


The picture up top shows a diver about to work on maintaining a lock gate on the Sault Ste. Marie Canal. This was taken between 1900 and 1910, when the current canal infrastructure was less than 25 years old.

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