It often surprises my students when I tell them that as much as 60-80% of all software development effort (time and money) goes into software maintenance. After all, software is not a technology that we think of as “breaking down” — at least in the conventional sense of wearing out, needing parts replaced, or requiring a new coat of paint or some additional lubrication. Nevertheless, since the mid-1960s software maintenance has loomed large in the minds (and budgets) of any organization using or developing software systems.

The problem of maintenance is a ubiquitous but neglected element of the history of technology. All complex technological systems eventually break down and require repair (some more so than others), and, in fact, as David Edgerton has suggested, maintenance is probably the central activity of most technological societies.1 But maintenance is also low-status, difficult, tedious and risky. Engineers and inventors do not like maintenance (and therefore generally do not do maintenance), and therefore historians of technology have largely ignored it.

This coming weekend I will be attending The Maintainers: A Conference, a meeting of historians, social scientists, artists, activists, and engineers, all of whom “share an interest in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world.” I will be talking about the history of software maintenance, but the conference program is full of fascinating papers and presentations.

If you happen to be in the vicinity of NYC this weekend, the Stevens Institute of Technology is going to be the place to be!

Update: The public response to the Maintainers conference has been extraordinary and international. The organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell published an essay in Aeon that subsequently got reported on and reposted across the Internet. The conference has also been covered internationally in the French newspaper Le Monde and on Australian national radio.

  1. Edgerton, David. 2007. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press.