This truism became clear to me as I walked around my home last weekend. A neighbor informed me that my minivan had a burned out headlight. The masonry on my front stoop was a mess after several freezes and thaws had shredded the concrete. Finally, the brake pads on my son’s bicycle were out of alignment; it was unsafe and not rideable until I could adjust them.
As I’ve written before, I’m more of a bookish history nerd and not much of a handyman, so these home repair projects often end badly for me and my family. However, the bigger point is this: technologies and infrastructure that were once new and spiffy get worn down and out of order through repeated use. Technologies require maintenance.
I’ve been thinking about maintenance recently thanks to two of my friends and colleagues, Dr. Andrew Russell and Dr. Lee Vinsel. Andy is a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Lee is an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech. Both have spent their careers focused on the history of technology; Andy is an expert on technical standards and the history of computing, while Lee focuses on auto safety, technological risk, and regulation.
Back in 2015, when both Andy and Lee were on the faculty at Stevens Institute of Technology, they were discussing Walter Isaacson’s popular book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014). They lamented the way Isaacson exalted the well-known innovators and entrepreneurs (e.g. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs) while generally ignoring important, but lesser known background players in the digital revolution. Lee and Andy joked that someone should write a counter to Isaacson’s book titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Digital Infrastructures That Kind of Work Most of the Time.
They soon converted this joke into a vibrant and rigorous intellectual project. In April 2016, Andy and Lee organized a conference at Stevens Institute called “The Maintainers.” They published an essay in Aeon, “Hail the Maintainers,” where they outlined the origins of the conference and their belief that historians (and people in general) were obsessed with innovation while under-valuing maintenance. They have subsequently appeared on NPR’s Freakonomics radio show, and shared their research with a host of worldwide media outlets, including The Guardian (UK), Le Monde (France), and just recently, the New York Times. In April 2017, they held a second conference, “Maintainers II,” and Lee is now working on a maintenance-themed book.
Their insights have struck a chord. Tech enthusiasts regularly obsess over new innovations; they have no problem sleeping overnight on a sidewalk to buy the latest iPhone, Xbox, or digital gadget at the stroke of midnight. Meanwhile, our critical infrastructures are crumbling due to lack of maintenance, often with deadly and tragic consequences. An interstate highway bridge collapses in Minneapolis. The Metro subway system in Washington, DC catches fire. The drinking water in Flint, Michigan is tainted with lead.
Andy and Lee’s maintenance research proposes a few main arguments:
- Innovation is important, but we should not be blinded by neophilia (an obsession with the new).
- Instead, an honest observation of our technological world suggests that we are surrounded by (and utterly dependent upon) much older infrastructures and legacy technologies, such as electrical grids, roads, and sewer systems.
- Unlike innovation, which values “disruption” and “game-changing” technologies, we want our critical infrastructures to be stable and reliable, with no disruptions in service. This is true, even for digital infrastructures, such as internet service providers and Netflix! Reliability, in turn, requires constant maintenance.
- The preponderance of technological labor is not devoted to innovation and creating new things. Rather, most technological work is comprised of the mundane—but critically important—labor of inspections, repairs, adjustments, and small iterative improvements to existing systems. For example, one study suggests that software programmers spend about 70% of their time maintaining old code, versus writing new apps.
- If we don’t maintain things, our society suffers (see Flint, leaded water).
- Thus, as a society we must value blue-collar maintainers (mechanics, electricians, plumbers) and white-collar maintainers (IT systems administrators, dentists) just as much as we value inventors, new product designers, and entrepreneurs.
Andy and Lee’s observations also suggest a subtle refinement in how the Lemelson Center might consider presenting invention and technology to our visitors. For example, our vision statement is understandably pro-innovation: “We envision a world in which everyone is inventive and inspired to contribute to innovation.” Should we consider introducing new language that emphasizes caring for—not just creating—technology? Similarly, in Spark!Lab we emphasize that invention is a multi-step, iterative process by guiding visitors through a series of “It” statements: Think It, Explore It, Sketch It, Create It, Try It, Tweak It, Sell It. Might we consider adding “Maintain It,” as a reminder to value and care for the things we invent?
Lee and Andy’s renewed focus on maintenance is an important intellectual development within the history of technology and its allied discipline, science and technology studies (STS). I’ll be anxious to see what new insights they develop over the next few years and how that might influence our work at the Lemelson Center. As for me, it’s time to pick up a wrench and fix my son’s bike.
Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, “Hail the Maintainers,” Aeon, 7 April 2016, https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more, accessed 4 August 2017.
Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, “Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance!” New York Times, 22 July 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/22/opinion/sunday/lets-get-excited-about-maintenance.html, accessed 4 August 2017.
Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, “The Maintainers” (website), http://themaintainers.org/, viewed 4 August 2017.
Stephen J. Dubner, “In Praise of Maintenance,” Freakonomics Radio, 19 October 2016, http://freakonomics.com/podcast/in-praise-of-maintenance/, viewed 4 August 2017.
On the 70% figure, see Nathan Ensmenger, “When Good Software Goes Bad: The Surprising Durability of and Ephemeral Technology,” presented at The Maintainers conference, 9 April 2016, http://themaintainers.org/s/ensmenger-maintainers-v2.pdf, viewed 4 August 2017.
David Ferguson, “We love ‘disruptors’. But it’s regular people who keep the world afloat,” The Guardian, 16 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/16/hail-the-maintainers-essay-blue-collar-workers-impact, viewed 4 August 2017.
Hubert Guillaud, “L’innovation se fait-elle au détriment de ‘la maintenance’?” Le Monde, 23 April 2016, http://internetactu.blog.lemonde.fr/2016/04/23/linnovation-se-fait-elle-au-detriment-de-la-maintenance/, viewed 4 August 2017.