⚡ Make Space for Maintenance

How creative industries exploit maintenance work in the Global South

While Nadia Eghbal's talk last week focused on the under-appreciated work of open-source maintainers, today's guest essay — from one of our amazing Reboot fellows! — examines how capitalism and colonialism are behind the undervaluation of maintenance work around the globe.

Bianca Aguilar is a second-year studying design and computer science at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. Aside from working with early-stage startups, she cultivates budding student creatives & technologists at Developh and User Experience Society. In her free time, you can find her dancing, reading manga/webtoons, or playing Genshin Impact.

🌱 make space for maintenance

By Bianca Aguilar

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.

creativity’s inauthenticity

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.

tell us about your experience participating in the reboot student fellowship!

This fellowship is what I wish all learning experiences were like. It felt organic; I learned the most not from the books we had to read, but the people I got to discuss them with. So worth getting up early in the morning for (sad about all the events I missed just because they were at 4-6 AM). Shout out to my groupmates and mentor: Anh, Lena, Tanya, Ethan, and Matthew! Tech x labor supremacy forever!

who in the design world inspires you?

Educators always inspire me, even those not in design; I consider them as learning experience designers. Each one I've met has been a huge influence on me as a person, whether as a teacher in the classroom or a coach in the studio. Right now, I've been studying the work of design educators Elizabeth Lin and Miguel Cardona. Thanks to them, I've been able to make use of Figma as a medium of teaching.

what's one book you loved this year?

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell has completely shifted my approach to life. After reading it, I gone from always trying to optimize productivity to attempting to live more intentionally. This tweet says it all.

Find more of Bianca on her website, Substack, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

🌀 microdoses

  • 📺 For one perspective on outsourced workers in the Philippines, watch the documentary The Cleaners, which follows five Manila-based Facebook content moderators to highlight the human cost of social media.

  • ☕ Sociologist Anne Helen Petersen reminds us that remote, flexible work doesn't necessitate isolation.

  • 🤖 Karen Hao's dictionary of corporate AI ethics is equally hilarious and depressing. Relevant: "augment (v) - To increase the productivity of white-collar workers. Side effect: automating away blue-collar jobs. Sad but inevitable."

  • 👨‍🏫 If you're thinking about grad school (honestly, who isn't?), read this informative thread on the state of public interest scholarship.

  • 📚 All books are good books

  • 🎼 Reboot fellow Maximilian Obasiolu makes the compelling case for TikTok acquiring Soundcloud:

💝 closing note

One of the Reboot fellows, Tanya (MIT 2022), asked the group for advice on getting into a serious writing habit. Here are some of the responses:

  • Bianca: I started writing because I found myself consuming way too much content and needed a way to process it. I’m an avid notetaker (Obsidian is my go-to), then turn these notes into an outline, then a draft, and so on. What also helps me get over blocks is analog writing! Working with paper helps me conquer my inner censor.

  • Ivan (Brown 2022.5): I've tried to put a schedule on my writing, but the biggest thing for me has just been giving myself room to write about literally anything. Writing is definitely one of those things where you just have to do more of it to get better.

  • Lucas (Brown 2023): This Ira Glass quote has always been really motivational for me: “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good... But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this... If you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

Keep nurturing,

Jasmine & Reboot team