A conversation with Andy Russell, Dean and Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, on society's focus on innovation, which keeps us from thinking about and crediting the maintainers who keep everything working.
Gridium: Hello everyone and welcome to this conversation with Andy Russell, who is Dean and Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York. This chat adds on to a discussion with Professor Lee Vinsel on maintenance and innovation. My name is Millen and I’m with Gridium–buildings use our software to run more efficiently.
Today, Andy and I will explore the dark side of innovation, the history of Bell Labs, and a little bit of space exploration and Mars colonization and what it tells us about maintenance.
Andy: Good, okay, that’s great.
Gridium: To get started, I wanted ask you about the dark side of innovation.
Andy: Yeah the dark side of innovation, it seems so mean to even bring it up in some ways because there’s such a positive vibe about innovation. It’s so easy to get behind and people just gravitate towards novelty and invention and inspiration and creativity and those are all aligned with the idea of innovation and so to even say it has a dark side or to pursue that line of thought or to criticize innovators, I think it is heretical to some people. Even though we are not the first, Lee and I aren’t the first people to say it. You know, this idea has been around for a while it’s still I think a little bit jarring for some people to understand.
So, as we’ve been talking and making some of these arguments about innovation and about maintenance, I think we’ve become more careful over time not to say that innovation is bad or not to say people shouldn’t be creative or inventive or to get inspired about doing new things, that would be so hypocritical because Lee and I, we love those things. It’s more… this is where our distinction between innovation and innovation-speak comes in that we feel like people who talk about innovation so much are overdoing it and that’s regrettable for a number of reasons. One is it’s just… it becomes its own cliché and that’s offensive, mostly on stylistic grounds. It’s just… the same way any buzzwords just gets annoying but that’s not really the core issue, the core issue is it’s a distraction and it’s a distraction from thinking realistically about technologies and thinking about how technologies work, thinking about how societies work, and one offshoot of that is that we give way more credit to innovators and inventors and inspirational figures and no credit to the people who are really keeping things going. So that’s one of the big dark sides for me is what all this innovation talk hides and keeps us from thinking about.
Gridium: And is it that the innovation talk distracts us, or do you think somehow modern society has developed an indifference to maintenance?
Andy: I think it’s both, I think all the innovation talk feeds into this relative devaluing in modern societies for maintenance. It’s always been a hard sell to get people to really pay attention to maintenance or care for maintenance or to respect people generally in lower classes, generally from disadvantaged backgrounds who are maintainers. That’s always been an uphill battle, but especially when we tell children and we have movies and all of these things that the cultural incentives are to glorify invention and innovation, I think that only amplifies this problem that’s been around a long time in Western society.
Gridium: Andy, I was reading your piece, “The Nothing Special” piece and I was struck on how you framed this dynamic which is that “Americans would rather dream about smart cities that throw money into stupid pot holes.” (Laughs)
Andy: Yeah, that was a fun one to write.
Gridium: And you see that time and again in your work and in your review of innovation and of maintenance?
Andy: Yeah, it’s a political problem for sure. Elsewhere in that piece I talk about ribbon-cutting and it’s just more fun for everybody involved to celebrate a new building, to put 50 million dollars into a new building, than to bury it in the ground, to fill the holes that we’ve made, or to fix the cracks that’s have appeared in the things our parents made or someone else’s grandfather made, that’s just not as fun, ‘cause you don’t see it. There’s a word that goes along with infrastructures that scholars use a lot which is invisible and it’s true with standards too, they call it “invisible” and sometimes I really don’t like that shorthand because I don’t think that these things are invisible, I don’t think bridges are invisible.
Gridium: No, indeed not.
Andy: I think it’s (laughs) a metaphor for what we choose to pay attention to and what we choose to ignore. So, I think it’s just more fun to celebrate new things and a new technological canvas like a smart city. Imagine the possibilities. It’s amazing the things we can do and it’s just more fun to think about those possibilities instead of, to face up the responsibilities that we have from previous generations and from things breaking.
Gridium: So, let’s admit for the sake of this discussion that it is more fun to think about innovation. Does that suggest that there’s a requisite value shift that modern society must undergo to rethink the word “significant”, to rethink what is old and to place greater value on those existing technologies?
Andy: Yeah, yeah… I think that’s right. Some of these ideas come from David Edgerton. He wrote a book called “The Shock of the Old” and he really wanted to push us to rethink all of these things. What it means for something to be old and like you said, what it means for something to be significant. And it is, like you said, I’m just repeating what you said, it is a cultural shift. How do we do that is kind of an interesting question. Some discussions in the maintainers group have revolved around how do we make maintenance cool? Or how do we make it sexy?
Andy: And that would certainly… those are strategies to get eyeballs and to get people interested, but there’s something a little bit unsatisfying about those strategies as well because it’s the intrinsic value of these things, that’s why they are important. So that’s why they’re significant, for their own sake, and cool and sexy makes me think that we need to bring markers of status from other things and paste them on to maintenance or infrastructure or… and that’s not the whole puzzle. I think it really is something deeper, that people need to have a little more respect for, not only that kind of work and the people that do it, but the reasons why it is significant; we just couldn’t persist without it.
Gridium: What role do you think the standards play in the discussion around reframing cultural values for maintenance and for intrinsic value of the structures that get maintained?
Andy: So, I’ve spent a lot of my life in the last couple of decades now thinking about standards and where standards come from and why they’re important. And one phrase I come back to over and over again, it was a term or phrase from Steve Usselman, a historian who’s at Georgia Tech writes about railroads and computers among other things, and it’s to maintain, I guess, reliability under conditions of duress. So, if things are just working fine we don’t really worry about systems breaking. That essence of working fine is because they’re working right, there’s a circularity there; but what happens when there are special strains on a system and what happens when there’s unusual pressures on something. Like if… the table on my office here: it just has some papers and books on it, that’s fine. But what if you and I were jumping up and down on it? Or what if there was extra strain on it somehow? That’s a reason why we wanna know before we jump on it, well how much is this table supposed to hold and what are these materials rated for, how are the structures supposed to withstand this constant of pressure.
You know people who build things: buildings, furniture or whatever it might be, really need to worry about that. So, it really makes it all possible… standards make it all possible because they embed all kinds of conversations about the strength of materials, tests that go into that, how we trust different people who we’ll never meet, but if they create a certain building material or a certain structure, how do we know that their work is trustworthy? Well, we have standards. So, it really is important for basically everything, not just to materials but if you think about even language or other modes of communication: standardized ways of speaking, ways of acting, greeting people… all these different standards and norms make everything else possible. So, it’s really the grounds, standards are truly the grounds out of which everything else can grow.
Gridium: I know that you’ve done some thinking about the Internet and as you talked about a system unplanned for or new level of duress, I can’t help but think about the recent influx of cyber security threats or the recent fragility of the Internet and large swaths of the Internet going down during DDoS attacks and the like, and what does that tell us about how we need to maintain the thing which is the Internet?
Andy: Yeah, great question. So, I got into academia thinking that I wanted to write the history of the Internet and as I was doing that the immediate question that I needed to answer was “What is this thing called the Internet?” and I was most satisfied by an answer that featured standards at it’s core.
So, the Internet is a network of networks that exchange data of all kinds using the TCP IP standards: Transmission Control Protocol Internet Protocol. That’s a very basic version of it, but that’s what all those networks have in common and that’s why we have that one thing we can refer to as an Internet. So, and those standards and this Internet came from a certain set of conditions: they were created 1970s by some researchers funded by the American Department of Defense and they had specific goals in mind and designed the system with certain characteristics and did not think about other characteristics, and had a no way of knowing what is 20-30 years down the line, as a technology in use. And so, one reason why attacks and why cyber security itself is a field is because people have come up with ways to undermine or to shoot holes or to exploit holes that those standards and other standards leave. So, in connecting everything then there’s holes left open. So, you’re left with a cat and mouse game that actually recapitulates how standards work more generally. So, there’s a… standards create a platform and platforms can be used in certain things. Some of those uses are good and intended and some are unintended and still good and some are unintended and bad.
And all of those things are innovations that sit on top of a platform. And so, if some of those innovations are the “dark side of innovation” like we are talking about before, then it’s up to the system designers and maintainers to create a new set of standards to cope with that, and on and on and on. And so there’s a tit for tat there, and we’ve seen tremendous sophistication not only anti-virus software, in building those things into operating systems; I think users have gotten more sophisticated too in knowing whom to trust. But the attackers have gotten more sophisticated too. So, this thing is self-propelled in a way, where there’s a technical standard or a social standard or a norm where its behavior and technology, but then there’s always novelties that push it, and on and on.
Gridium: There are other more and perhaps more concrete, to use the phrase, examples of the roles of standards can have in maintenance and I think I’d like you to talk about the Bell Labs example and the two departments and its engineering team: the Department of Operations and Engineering split from the Department of Development and Research.
Can you share a little more about the role of standards and the split in the Bell Labs innovation factory along with those two branches?
Andy: Yeah, so a little bit of history is in order. Before the Internet and before digital computers, Americans had this thing called the Bell System which was a monopoly telephone system created in the late 19th and consolidated in the early 20th century, blessed by regulators as a regulated monopoly right around World War I. And it’s a fascinating system, the history of the telephone system is a fascinating story. As it grew in the teens and twenties and continued to grow and one system began to take shape, the management realized that they needed to differentiate between different types of engineering. There was at one point where a unified engineering department and then management realized that that didn’t make sense. And so, there was a split that you said on the one hand there were engineers who were really looking forward, who were doing development and research, and one Bell System president called this “The Engineering of the Future.” And then Operations and Engineering was a different set of engineers with a different set of skills who were doing what the president called “The Engineering of the Present”. And these two divisions were split in the early 1920s, and the Engineering of the Future in 1925 became called Bell Labs; it was a split off as it’s own thing.
Gridium: Ah, okay.
Andy: And it was just one unit of several units of the overall Bell System. Now, many people today… of course the Bell System monopoly was destroyed in the early 1980s by antitrust regulators and broken up into Baby Bells and then wireless came through and now the whole thing is just a distant memory for most people. But if they remember it all or think about it, they think about Bell Labs because there were a lot of really remarkable innovations that came out from Bell Labs: the transistor, satellite transmission, the Unix operating system, information theory, all sorts of Nobel prizes went to people working in Bell Labs. But Americans who used telephones, like our grandparents and parents and even me when I was little, really didn’t touch Bell Labs. What we touched were phones and service provided by a local operating company and long distance, a term that are no longer in use…
Andy: …and temporary this works, but if I wanted to call grandma it will be long distance.
Gridium: Would she accept the charges?
Andy: Yeah, exactly or we’d see it on the bill, big charge on the bill. And that was, those were different units of people. So, in an essay that I wrote, I wanted to look back and think about different types of labor who have maintained the telephone system. And the numbers that I could find from the 40s and 60s–and I did a pretty quick look at it, one can dig deeper–is that only about 1-2%, 1 ½% of the total employees of the entire Bell System were working in Bell Labs, were doing the “sexy stuff”, were doing the Nobel Prize-winning stuff, about 1%. The other 98-99% were either in the manufacturing branch of the Bell system, it’s a company called Western Electric, hundreds of thousands of people. Or, upwards of half a million or more were working for these local operating companies, providing high-quality, reliable service for Americans at regulated rates. So, the Bell System is a good example of how the guys in the labs get all the credit, you know? (Laughs)
Andy: They were remembered as the heroes, but they’re the 1%. The system’s value, the significance for those of us who needed to talk to our parents, or grandma or call for an ambulance or a doctor’s appointment, we knew that phone would work when we picked it up because of the Bell Systems excellent practices of maintenance and reliability and this program of standardization that was so comprehensive. I think nobody listening to this would even believe the things that they standardized.
Gridium: I was surprised too when I heard a little bit about it and I’d love to hear you describe it more. I think it was called the Bell System Practices Index of Standards?
Andy: Yeah, so the index. So, all the Bell System standards or what later became called the Bell System Practices, or BSPs… the index itself was about a thousand pages. Those aren’t the standards, that’s just the index. The standards themselves covered every aspect you can think of. I mean, think about a telephone system, not just a technological system today, with the handsets and lines, the central offices and the buildings, the layout of this building was standardized, the uniforms of all these people, the logos were standardized. But also as the Bell System and the telephone, as a complex socio-technical system, this logic of standardization permeated everything. So they had standardized cutlery is one example. Standardized, polished…
Andy: Yeah. Silverware for sure.
Andy: First aid kits. So…
Gridium: Can I ask an obvious question?
Gridium: What does cutlery have to do with making sure that the phone works when you pick up the handset?
Andy: Well, if you look at telephone service as just the handset then nothing at all, but if you recognize that it (laughs) takes a village as they say, or it takes an entire bureaucratic and regulatory and cultural apparatus to make that handset possible and affordable, then you get a little bit closer, because then you understand that if there’s thousands of people whose job it is to make sure that everything is the same… it’s kinda like a military logic of standardization at that point. So, cutlery is one aspect of that; there are many others.
Gridium: I guess, Andy it shouldn’t be… since that’s true, it’s no surprise that innovation is sexier than maintenance.
Andy: Yeah, (laughs) yeah. That’s right. Yeah, why… you know, if you were to ask anybody if they wanted to spend a day with someone inventing new things in a lab or someone who’s imprinting spoons with a Bell logo… (laughs) Or, you know… I mean, I think it would be interesting to hang out with the people doing the spoons, but if you were to make a movie about it or try and make it appealing or try and get young people to enter one of those fields, I think they’d wanna’ go into the lab. Although, to be fair, I think they have a vision of what the lab is like that is probably different from how labs actually work. Labs are pretty boring, mundane places in their own right, but our own society holds them out as crucible of greatness and novelty. That’s a different subject,but…
Gridium: Sure… I mean the Bunsen burners are in the labs. (Laughs)
Andy: Exactly, well and you can do things differently instead of doing the same thing over and over and over and over again.
Gridium: So, we’re actually back to where we started a little bit around the concept of innovation being sexier and attractive and the shiny object and maintenance, well maintenance not… your work shows that this has wide-ranging implications for civil society. I think you and Lee explored this a little bit when it came to the potential colonization of Mars.
Andy: Yeah. So, this was kind of like our first essay “Hail the Maintainers”; this was an essay that we wrote also for Aeon, that came out of a combination of frustration and just some sense of that things are a little absurd. So, we wrote an essay for Aeon called “Whitey on Mars” and it’s about Elon Musk and his fantasy in colonizing Mars. And it just… neither Lee and I, we don’t have a strong feelings about the space program one way or another, or the exploration of the outer space, it’s not really something… I mean, I’ve watch space shuttles take off and it was cool, but…
Andy: You know, it’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. But it, increasingly as we’ve seen talk of colonizing Mars get more and more hype, it’s just… there’s such a disconnect with what we see as pressing problems and important problems and it just seems like a leap into the world of fantasy. And so I think Lee had this idea, he was just reading about Elon Musk and his plans and he said, “We’ve got to write an essay called ‘Whitey on Mars’.” And I burst out laughing because the notion is so absurd… and we had talked about the song Whitey on the Moon before, but immediately when he said it, I said, “You’re right. This is just crazy that people are so caught up in this and I think they probably don’t realize how silly it all seems. They need to take a step back and understand some of the bigger picture.” That was our feeling.
Gridium: To paraphrase Lucianne Walkowicz from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, I wanted to ask you Andy, “Why do you think we’d rather innovate a habitat on Mars over maintaining a habitable climate on Earth?”
Andy: You know it’s tough for me to identify with that because I don’t. I think it’s crazy. But why does this appeal to so many people? I think there’s a lot of appeal in doing something and accomplishing something that’s never been accomplished before. There is a gravity in the stars and there is something sensational about looking up on a cold, clear night and seeing all these stars and wondering about our place in the universe.
Andy: Yeah. and boy does… Elon Musk is an inspirational guy for a number of reasons, but space exploration is really seductive. And to think that we can actually do it… to think we can actually go for spacewalks is amazing.
Gridium: It is.
Andy: So, it’s in some sense, it sounds crazy but it’s an easy problem. I think it’s an easier problem than addressing poverty or trying to overcome racism or name any number of problems: public health problems, gun violence, you name it, let alone some of the challenges of environmental sustainability… trying to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and trying to get that cultural and economic influence out of our lives that we need to… sort of an, oil and coal mentality. So, I said it sounds crazy to think we could explore outer space or colonize Mars, but there’s no precedence there. There’s no infrastructure and it’s to go the first time and do it the first time. The only problems that Elon Musk and his crew are thinking about now are technical problems. You know, how do they make a rocket booster go faster? Fuel be reusable? You can seclude yourself and think about those problems and hide away, and I think that’s easy; I think it’s the easy way out.
Gridium: So there’s no precedence either for the answer and I don’t expect you to have it but I’m inclined to ask you anyway Andy, what would it take for maintenance to inspire people in the same way, as say, a Falcon9 rocket from Space X?
Andy: Boy, well, yeah… I don’t have a good answer for that. People get talking about infrastructure and maintenance when they see connections to their own lives, and that’s a fundamentally different phenomenon than people getting excited watching a rocket take off because that’s, I think, literally an escape from our world and our lives.
But we see a political forces mobilize infrastructure when things go badly wrong and when we realize that we can fix it. So pick your disaster: a train crash, the Flint water scene, the Oroville Dam in California that now they think that might not breach. But there are these moments of either disaster or being on the verge of disaster when we do see people coming together and thinking more about how do we make it better? But, you know, will it ever have the same appeal as a rocket? I don’t know, I think it strikes a different chord in people. So, my approach is to try get people to cultivate that space for themselves that would react positively to opportunities to fix things and to make lives better for people who depend on all of these things.
Gridium: Yeah. Well, and that’s what you are doing with the Maintainers Organization and at themaintainers.org and I wish you and Lee the best of luck in that effort.
Andy: Thanks Millen. It was a lot of fun talking to you and people should visit the website and read the papers. It’s been so much fun to see different people come together and offer up different ideas and topics that we never knew anything about. So, and it’s fun… it’s a really fun community and it’s a good cause too.
Gridium: Yes, and for further reading check out Andy Russells’ piece “Nothing Special” in the Aeon article co-authored with Lee about the mission to Mars. This and more information is available on themainainters.org and of course, we explore these concepts on the Gridium blog. If you have questions please e-mail Andy at email@example.com or us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Okay and with that I’d like to thank Andy for joining us today.
Andy: Okay, Thanks!