The Technium

Being Is All Maintenance

There used to be rule of thumb that said: for every dollar you’ll spend on gasoline for your car, you will also spend a dollar on repairs and maintenance. For instance if you drive 10,000 miles a year, and you average say 25 miles per gallon, that’s 400 gallons of fuel per year. At say $2.50 per gallon, you can figure on spending $1, 000 in gas annually. According to this rule of thumb, you should expect to average the same amount on tires, repairs, oil changes, and so on over the life of your car. I haven’t counted my own receipts recently but I’m guessing that rule of thumb is still valid. Edmunds, the automobile buyers guide, calculates just the first five-year “true cost of ownership” of a car (which includes insurance, taxes as well as maintenance and repair) at about 150% of the purchase cost of the car.

The equivalent for high tech equipment seems to be that for every dollar you spend purchasing it, you spend a dollar’s worth of your time maintaining them. For instance, if you spend $100 on a software package, you’ll easily spend 4-6 hours installing, upgrading, and troubleshooting the code before you are done with it. (Figuring the $14-23 hourly rate of an average Maintenance Technician.) The more disembodied and software-governed the device, the more this is true. While I use a Mac, more reliable and user-friendly than other computers, I send several full days a year in dealing with its ailments.

I have found that for me the new constraint in purchasing stuff is not its price (which in general continues to drop), but its maintenance time. Every device I bring into my home demands hours of support time – not counting the time required to learn how to use it. The hours are spent on the phone with tech support, researching manuals online, cruising user forums, or simply tinkering with the tool. All things will need help at some point in their lives. I’ve been surprised at how much time I spend on keeping seemingly solid things – like a showerhead – going. Why would a showerhead stop working after years of working well, and no injury or disturbance on our part? Well, matter decays, and the once new inevitably falters. And when one trips, the other stuff around start to stumble. The more our household becomes an ecology of devices, all somewhat dependent on each other, the more time they require for keeping them healthy. I feel as if I am a vet for gear.


The poor techno patient is somewhat like an animal, and somewhat like a garden, and a lot like a boat. I was reminded of these metaphors recently as I devoted an inordinate amount of time keeping three websites going. If you don’t baby a website, it goes to seed, gets mangy, and sinks. You can’t just erect a web site, get it to work perfectly, and hope it will keep going as the traffic streams in as long as you don’t mess with it and keep the electricity on. That is a foolish as expecting your new boat to remain seaworthy as long as you don’t mess with it. But while it sits there “doing nothing,” the weather, the sea, the elements are steadily eroding it away. Even if you change nothing about your boat, or on your website, everything around it is changing. Operating systems and browsers get upgraded. Monitors evolve. Code gets corrupted. Bugs accumulate. Spammers and viruses attack. Rather than just purring along self-sufficiently, a popular website requires something to be repaired or tended to nearly everyday.

At a personal level this is bad enough, but at the enterprise or institutional level, maintenance is much closer to the auto/gas rule of thumb. In other words, for every dollar you spend in buying or developing software, you’ll spend almost as much maintaining it. Graphed over time, the trend continues to rise, so someday we may spend more on maintenance than on purchase. This chart is taken from data compiled by Jussi Koskinen at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, and from Tata Consultancyin India. It charts the percentage of software life-cycle costs devoted to maintenance.


This degree of high maintenance has been a surprise. It is not part of the official future. In the future we all hoped for, smart things without moving parts were suppose to last longer, and need less handholding. In the official future we never imagining replacing our cool communicators every year with better models, or making sure they were welcomed and played nice with all the other stuff in your lives. I don’t remember Tom Swift, or the guys in Star Trek, or Star Wars, or any other citizens of a science fiction century carrying as much stuff as we do. Their rooms were not filled with gadgets. But if current trends are extrapolated, in 100 years, a person like me will have 60 items around them while they work, 45 appliances in their kitchen, and 375 objects in their garage.

And they will send 1/3 of their working time keeping it all going. We will be like herders again, engaged in technological husbandry. Or we can see ourselves as techo gardeners, pulling bugs and viruses from our rainforest of gear. It’s not unpleasant work; just more than we thought.

  • Kevin Kelly

    Thanks, Chris. Doug didn’t coin that phrase. Bran Ferren and Danny Hillis did, which Doug mentions in the piece you quote.

    But I agree with your point.

  • Chris

    Douglas Adams once said: “Technology is our word for something that doesn’t work yet.”

    Take a chair, for example – obviously a product of technology, but one so perfected in its basic function that we don’t think about how to work it, or maintain its operation (except when really fat people come to visit). It works almost perfectly now, and any deliberations we make on choices are largely governed by aesthetics.

  • Dominic Muren

    This is an interesting point Kevin. I think the surprise about the disparity of our expectations of technology and the reality of what technology provides — that things get less laborious the higher tech they are — comes from a societal misconception that technology is more powerful than nature.

    Technology maintenance, as with so many things human, is top-down. That is to say, the person who commands pieces of technology is responsible for spending energy (or money to pay for other people’s energy) to keep things running. The top pays for all the things under it. This is entirely different than natural systems. In nature, things aren’t top down, or bottom up either. Everything thinks it’s the top, and acts accordingly. Because of the networked nature of nature, the efforts of every member of the system produce wastes or surpluses which are used by other members. In essence, the maintenance takes care of itself.

    So, why hasn’t this happened in technology? Of course, that’s the million dollar question, and I’m a few thousand dollars in graduate-school-loan-debt, so obviously I don’t have the answer. But I would guess that it has to do with our tendency to get attached to technologies, and our love of what’s new.

    It probably is possible for a real “ecology of technology” to develop. However, the only way we have observed successful ecologies forming (natural selection) requires lots of killing off of non-network-integrated organisms, and long periods of relatively boring stability between integrated organisms

    If the goal is devices that don’t take much effort to upkeep, then that must be the primary selector, not color, style, megapixels, horsepower, or designer name. Products would have to be killed off so haphazardly as to make it much riskier to get into the business of making things (the only reason animals do it is because they’re going to die anyway :) Additionally, we would never be able to stand the kinds of stable periods that arise in such an ecosystem. Sure, the Model T was made for a number of years in a row, relatively unchanged, but cockroaches haven’t changed for millions of years; How would you like it if the only personal music player on the market since 1980 was the Walkman?

    Even then, I’m not sure how it would cut down on effort. I guess I’m thinking of how you don’t have to work on making sure your cells repair themselves, or blood cells replace themselves, because in the “sort-of ecology” that is your body, all the little pieces take care of themselves.

    In any case, great piece. I will probably make reference to it on my own blog.

  • Bryan Bishop

    From Craig Perko’s blog:
    > I was in the future, and I was responsible for designing gods. Gods are
    > pseudo-AI systems which make interacting with complex things easy. I had
    > designed a few, and then someone dumped the god of the internet on me.
    > It was a herculean task (not that “herculean” was a reference to this kind of
    > god). The old god of the internet (the third god of the internet) was having a very
    > hard time coping with the growing number of transmedia communications. He
    > couldn’t translate from english to VR to neurocode very well, and that was what
    > the internet of the future was particularly focusing on.

    The dream continues, and eventually Craig figures out how to engineer his god: shovel off any work to somewhere else. It is somewhat like Douglas Adams and his Somebody Else’s Problem field mechanics. Too, this models the trend of thinking our technosphere being easier to maintain when the opposite is more likely, programs are just developing to make it look like it is more simple than it really is.

    And it looks like Kevin has beat me to mentioning Douglas Adams.

    - Bryan

  • Chris

    Heh – it’s been so long since I ‘actually read’ that piece that I misattributed the quotation.

    I used to work with Douglas’ company – in a delicious circularity that seems to exist everywhere in the world, it was he that introduced me to your book ‘Out of Control’.