“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.”
Excerpted from Andrew Russell:
(I recommend reading this essay in full)
“In a biting essay titled ‘Innovation is the New Black’, Michael Bierut, writing in Design Observer in 2005, lamented the ‘mania for innovation, or at least for endlessly repeating the word “innovation”’. Soon, even business publications began to raise the question of inherent worth. In 2006, The Economist noted that Chinese officials had made innovation into a ‘national buzzword’, even as it smugly reported that China’s educational system ‘stresses conformity and does little to foster independent thinking’, and that the Communist Party’s new catchphrases ‘mostly end up fizzling out in puddles of rhetoric’. Later that year, Businessweek warned: ‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword. We’re doing our part at Businessweek.’ Again in Businessweek, on the last day of 2008, the design critic Bruce Nussbaum returned to the theme, declaring that innovation ‘died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’
In 2012, even the Wall Street Journal got into innovation-bashing act, noting ‘the Term Has Begun to Lose Meaning’. At the time, it counted ‘more than 250 books with “innovation” in the title… published in the last three months’. A professional innovation consultant it interviewed advised his clients to ban the word at their companies. He said it was just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’.
Evidence has emerged that regions of intense innovation also have systemic problems with inequality. In 2013, protests erupted in San Francisco over the gentrification and social stratification symbolised by Google buses and other private commuter buses. These shuttles brought high-tech employees from hip, pricey urban homes to their lush suburban campuses, without exposing them to the inconvenience of public transportation or to the vast populations of the poor and homeless who also call Silicon Valley their home. The dramatic, unnecessary suffering exposed by such juxtapositions of economic inequality seems to be a feature, not a bug of highly innovative regions.
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. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce. If gadgets are to be profitable, corporations need people to manufacture, sell, and distribute them. Another important facet of technological labour comes when people actually use a product. In some cases, the image of the ‘user’ could be an individual like you, sitting at your computer, but in other cases, end users are institutions – companies, governments, or universities that struggle to make technologies work in ways that their inventors and makers never envisioned.
The most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago. This shift in emphasis involves focusing on the constant processes of entropy and un-doing – which the media scholar Steven Jackson calls ‘broken world thinking’ – and the work we do to slow or halt them, rather than on the introduction of novel things. In recent years, scholars have produced a number of studies of people who do this kind of work. For example, the science studies researcher Lilly Irani has examined the work low-wage labourers do to scrub digital information for the web, including Indian workers who check advertisements to ‘filter out porn, alcohol, and violence’. Why not extend this style of analysis to think more clearly about subjects such as ‘cybersecurity’? The need for coders and programmers in the cybersecurity field is obvious, but it should be equally obvious that fundamental vulnerabilities in our cyber-infrastructures are protected by the guards who work graveyard shifts and staff who repair fences and ID card-readers.
We can think of labour that goes into maintenance and repair as the work of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things. Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep. This realisation has significant implications for gender relations in and around technology. Feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track. Domestic labour has huge financial ramifications but largely falls outside economic accounting, like Gross Domestic Product. In her classic 1983 book, More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan examined home technologies – such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners – and how they fit into women’s ceaseless labour of domestic upkeep. One of her more famous findings was that new housekeeping technologies, which promised to save labour, literally created more work for mother as cleanliness standards rose, leaving women perpetually unable to keep up.
There is no point in keeping the practice of hero-worship that merely changes the cast of heroes without confronting the deeper problems
Nixon, wrong about so many things, also was wrong to point to household appliances as self-evident indicators of American progress. Ironically, Cowan’s work first met with scepticism among male scholars working in the history of technology, whose focus was a male pantheon of inventors: Bell, Morse, Edison, Tesla, Diesel, Shockley, and so on. A renewed focus on maintenance and repair also has implications beyond the gender politics that More Work for Mother brought to light. When they set innovation-obsession to the side, scholars can confront various kinds of low-wage labour performed by many African-Americans, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic minorities. From this perspective, recent struggles over increasing the minimum wage, including for fast food workers, can be seen as arguments for the dignity of being a maintainer.”