Hail the maintainers

Andrew Russell & Lee Vinsel at AEON: “The trajectory of ‘innovation’ from core, valued practice to slogan of dystopian societies, is not entirely surprising, at a certain level. There is a formulaic feel: a term gains popularity because it resonates with the zeitgeist, reaches buzzword status, then suffers from overexposure and cooptation. Right now, the formula has brought society to a question: after ‘innovation’ has been exposed as hucksterism, is there a better way to characterise relationships between society and technology?

There are three basic ways to answer that question. First, it is crucial to understand that technology is not innovation. Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old. In his book, Shock of the Old (2007), the historian David Edgerton examines technology-in-use. He finds that common objects, like the electric fan and many parts of the automobile, have been virtually unchanged for a century or more. When we take this broader perspective, we can tell different stories with drastically different geographical, chronological, and sociological emphases. The stalest innovation stories focus on well-to-do white guys sitting in garages in a small region of California, but human beings in the Global South live with technologies too. Which ones? Where do they come from? How are they produced, used, repaired? Yes, novel objects preoccupy the privileged, and can generate huge profits. But the most remarkable tales of cunning, effort, and care that people direct toward technologies exist far beyond the same old anecdotes about invention and innovation.

Second, by dropping innovation, we can recognise the essential role of basic infrastructures. ‘Infrastructure’ is a most unglamorous term, the type of word that would have vanished from our lexicon long ago if it didn’t point to something of immense social importance. Remarkably, in 2015 ‘infrastructure’ came to the fore of conversations in many walks of American life. In the wake of a fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia, President Obama wrestled with Congress to pass an infrastructure bill that Republicans had been blocking, but finally approved in December 2015. ‘Infrastructure’ also became the focus of scholarly communities in history and anthropology, even appearing 78 times on the programme of the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Artists, journalists, and even comedians joined the fray, most memorably with John Oliver’s hilarious sketch starring Edward Norton and Steve Buscemi in a trailer for an imaginary blockbuster on the dullest of subjects. By early 2016, the New York Review of Books brought the ‘earnest and passive word’ to the attention of its readers, with a depressing essay titled ‘A Country Breaking Down’.

Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, most of which falls far outside the realm of innovation

The best of these conversations about infrastructure move away from narrow technical matters to engage deeper moral implications. Infrastructure failures – train crashes, bridge failures, urban flooding, and so on – are manifestations of and allegories for America’s dysfunctional political system, its frayed social safety net, and its enduring fascination with flashy, shiny, trivial things. But, especially in some corners of the academic world, a focus on the material structures of everyday life can take a bizarre turn, as exemplified in work that grants ‘agency’ to material things or wraps commodity fetishism in the language of high cultural theory, slick marketing, and design. For example, Bloomsbury’s ‘Object Lessons’ series features biographies of and philosophical reflections on human-built things, like the golf ball. What a shame it would be if American society matured to the point where the shallowness of the innovation concept became clear, but the most prominent response was an equally superficial fascination with golf balls, refrigerators, and remote controls.

Third, focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going…..


We organised a conference to bring the work of the maintainers into clearer focus. More than 40 scholars answered a call for papers asking, ‘What is at stake if we move scholarship away from innovation and toward maintenance?’ Historians, social scientists, economists, business scholars, artists, and activists responded. They all want to talk about technology outside of innovation’s shadow.

One important topic of conversation is the danger of moving too triumphantly from innovation to maintenance. There is no point in keeping the practice of hero-worship that merely changes the cast of heroes without confronting some of the deeper problems underlying the innovation obsession. One of the most significant problems is the male-dominated culture of technology, manifest in recent embarrassments such as the flagrant misogyny in the ‘#GamerGate’ row a couple of years ago, as well as the persistent pay gap between men and women doing the same work.

There is an urgent need to reckon more squarely and honestly with our machines and ourselves. Ultimately, emphasising maintenance involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends. In formal economic terms, ‘innovation’ involves the diffusion of new things and practices. The term is completely agnostic about whether these things and practices are good. Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.

Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer. Our increasingly unequal and fearful world would be grateful….(More)”