Sustainability and Solidarity

Planned Obsolescence 2018-08-02

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about sustainability of late. To a significant extent, this thinking has been encouraged by my recent attempts to ensure that a non-profit scholarly network to which I’m deeply committed might be able to thrive. And those attempts have in turn been encouraged by the funders and other organizations that have supported that network’s development to this point; they too would like to see the network thrive, but they cannot support it indefinitely. We need, they reasonably suggest, a plan for demonstrating that the network will, at some point in the future, support itself.

Sustainability, in this line of thinking, is thus tied up in revenue models, in business plans, in cost recovery. Sustainability is for a non-profit entity forever financialized and, as a result, forever precarious. One small miscalculation can make the difference between survival and collapse.

And of course sustainability extends to realms other than the economic: there’s environmental sustainability, in which we attempt to ensure that more resources aren’t consumed — or more waste produced — than can be developed or managed in the near term. There’s technical sustainability, in which we attempt to ensure that projects conform to commonly accepted standards that will enable those projects’ future stability and growth.

All of these forms of sustainability are important, to varying degrees, to providing for the future of a non-profit network. But there’s another form that gets a good bit less attention, and that I increasingly think precedes economic or environmental or technical sustainability: social sustainability. The social aspect points not just to the determination of a group of people to support the network, but to the determination of those people to support their groupness; not just to their commitment to the thing they’re doing together, but to their commitment to the notion of “together” in the first place. Ensuring that these commitments are sustained is, I increasingly think, a necessary precondition of the other kinds of sustainability that we’re hoping to work toward.

My particular interests in this question derive from some challenges that have repeatedly surfaced in digital scholarly communication and digital humanities as tools and platforms age. There’s often lots of support available for building and, increasingly, implementing free and open-source tools, but there aren’t funding programs designed to ensure that they can be maintained. And as a result, the tools and platforms often accrue technical debt that becomes increasingly difficult to manage, rapidly making the projects appear unsustainable.

Brett Bobley recently tweeted a question about ways of sustaining such projects:

Of interest. This highlights a key issue I've been talking about for years: how do we sustain critical scholarly infrastructure? https://t.co/dXD7RpuMUN

— Brett Bobley (@brettbobley) July 18, 2018

There are numerous discussions and threads resulting from that question that are worth reading, but one that caught my attention in particular stems from this reply by Hugh Cayless:

Would entail (I think) institutions willing to take responsibility for critical scholarly infrastructure components, fund their maintenance, and give credit to the maintainers. Components die because all that drives them is passion and uncompensated (invisible) labor.

— Hugh ?????? (@hcayless) July 18, 2018

There is absolutely an institutional responsibility involved in sustaining these projects, but, as I argue in Generous Thinking, individual institutions cannot manage such responsibilities on their own. Cross-institutional collaborations are required in order to keep open-source software projects sustainable, and those collaborations demand that the staff participating in them be supported in dedicating some portion of their time to the collective good, rather than strictly to local requirements.

Sustainability in open-source development thus increasingly seems to me to have solidarity as a prerequisite, a recognition that the interests of the group require commitment from its members to that group, at times over and above their own individual interests. What I’m interested in thinking about is how we foster that commitment: how, in fact, we understand that commitment itself as a crucial form of social sustainability.