Note — Apr 26, 2020

Hail the Maintainers

Excellent piece at Aeon on progress, innovation, and maintenance. Recaps the recent history of innovation, how we largely stopped talking about progress—which was about society, not just technology—and switched instead to talking about innovation—which is almost exclusively about a certain vision of technology. On the influence of Schumpeter, Florida, and Christensen, how “in the world of business and technology, innovation had transformed into an erotic fetish. Armies of young tech wizards aspired to become disrupters.” Explains how “innovation” is only a very small part of the invention and use of technology, and how it’s come to obfuscate whole regions of the world, and the maintenance, care, and repair of objects and infrastructure. Reminds us that “we” need to recenter maintenance and care, address inequalities and the undervaluation of that work. It’s a piece from 2016 so the authors don’t address our current situation but obviously the whole thing can be read thinking of the blinders coming off on the value of essential workers. I’d also make a parallel between innovation and GDP, where for both the focus is on its growth and existence, usually without regard for the value it brings (or not) to society. Selling crap products that self-destruct in a few days is “good” for the GDP, just as crack cocaine was a great innovation (example from the article).

Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations. […]

After the Second World War, Americans treated new consumer technologies as proxies for societal progress. […]

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. […]

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. […]

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.”