Photo "Radio switchboard" courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

A conversation with Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology, about the need for balance between innovation, technology, and maintenance.


Transcription: 

Gridium: Hello everyone and welcome. This is our first of many conversations on the concept of “maintenance” and today we’re going to discuss “When maintenance is more important than innovation.”

I’m here with Lee Vinsel, an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He is working on the book “Taming the American Idol: Cars, Risks and Regulations.” Lee and Andrew Russell, Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, co-authored the Aeon magazine article, “Hail the maintainers: Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more.”

It’s this insightful article that bring us here today.

Lee: Well, thank you very much for having me on the podcast Millen.

Gridium: Great. And of course, buildings use Gridium software to run more effectively.

The agenda for our chat today starts with exploring you know, “What’s wrong with Innovation?” And from there we’ll go into Cold War kitchen debates and sources of growth. We’ll then discuss how society relates to technology and the importance of maintaining innovations that we have and technologies that we have at this point. We’ll wrap with further reading and some further discussion.

Lee: That sounds great.

Gridium: So, Lee, after reading this “Hail the maintainers” piece and some of your other work on themaintainers.org, I just have to ask if you really do want the word innovation to say, “die in a fire?”

Lee: (Laughs) I like that you asked me if I want the word innovation to “die in the fire” because a lot of times with, as a kind of critic of innovation speak, or what we call “innovation speak”, people assume that I am anti-innovation or a luddite or something like that, and I have to assure people that I like modern technology…

Gridium: (Laughs)

Lee: …and I like my smartphone and gadgets and e-mail and all these things.

Gridium: Right.

Lee: It really starts with my criticism… our criticism really starts with a worry that the word innovation and the rhetoric around that word has gotten out of hand, and we think that there’s several problems there. Some of them are that we’ve made some changes to make it basic institutions, like education, a higher education in the name of innovation, that we’re not sure actually get us more innovation. But for the sake of this conversation, one of our major points is that a focus on innovation and introducing new and novel things to the world often kind of draws our attention away from the more fundamental and more, you know, common practices that just keep the world going or maintain the world around us.

Gridium: Mmhmm. You mentioned that some folks who misunderstand the critique of the word innovation think that you are “anti-technology.”

Lee: Yeah.

Gridium: How do you define the balance between innovation rhetoric and the quality of life that stems from technology?

Lee: Well, here’s’ one way to look at it. I mean, if we think about the history of the Industrial Culture–which is what we live in no–it’s shorthand for modern society with all of this technology and stuff that we have. In the United States, Industrial Civilization really takes off in the late 19th century and new technologies are introduced really quickly. We have really high economic growth from about 1870 to 1970, okay.

And then, for a variety of reasons, technological innovation, meaningful technological change slows down, economic growth slows down, productivity, change slows down. But the irony is that the word “innovation”, and especially the term “technological innovation” – a focus on those things, really only develops in the 1960s, okay?

So, the period under which the most massive technological shifts are happening doesn’t really need the word. And so, that’s the kind of difference we’re trying to point out here when we do this — talk about the history of innovation — is that there’s an actual process of introducing new things, which we know is important. We know it creates economic growth. We know it improves quality of life, but then there’s the kind of rhetoric that developed around the concept of innovation and it’s that we’re trying to focus on because we think that it sometimes leads us astray to focus only on innovation.

Gridium: In the “Hail the maintainers” piece, y’all brought up an interesting historical example around the Cold War and a disagreement or an argument and a debate over the quality of life in the USSR and in the United States, and how that was reflected in the technologies inside the kitchen: washing machines and microwaves and everything else.

Lee: Yeah, I mean, if you think about the Cold War and the disagreements between the United States and Soviet Russia, the United States often celebrates itself and its capitalism by comparing where its technology, especially its consumer technology were compared to the Soviet Union. And so, the place where that comes through most clearly is that kind of Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev, which takes place in 1959.

And it’s really… the core of the debate is really about which economic system gives you the best quality of life and, at the heart of that is how American capitalism is giving rise to quick and great technological change that’s revolutionizing everyday life for its citizens.

Gridium: What I think is one of the interesting ideas here that y’all are exploring in the “Hail the maintainers” piece is the link between changes in technology, the focus on innovation and the direct knock-on effects on social structures and civil society.

Lee: There’s a couple different ways to approach this question. The one thing we emphasize is that there’s a lot of worries about economic inequality today, it’s something we hear about a lot today. And I think in part, it formed the core of both the Sanders campaign and the Trump campaign in different ways. But if we look at kind of, remember I was talking earlier about the… since the 1960s we’ve heard the word innovation more and more. That maps on pretty well onto the period in the United of increasing inequality, which has been increasing basically since the 1970s.

And so since the 1970s we’ve had this thing called “Innovation Policy,” which is ways that we redesign the tax code, redesign incentives for higher education like changing intellectual property law and things like that to generate more and more innovation. And our argument isn’t that those policies necessarily induce economic inequality, we don’t think that, but we don’t think that they necessarily do much to stop or turnaround economic inequality either.

And, you probably know this being out in San Francisco, you know this better than I do but Silicon Valley is often held up as a model that other localities can hope to emulate, and yet we also know that Silicon Valley is a very unequal place, right? There’s lots of economic inequality there. So, there’s real questions about what this kind of fascination with the culture of innovation does for these kind of deeper social structures.

Gridium: I also hadn’t been aware of Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s book, “More Work for Mother” and the subtitle there being “The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave.” Is there a trade-off that you’ve…

Lee: Yeah, it’s a classic book.

Gridium: …yeah. It’s easy as a consumer of technology to take for granted that new technology means an easier, perhaps therefore better life, therefore less work somehow?

Lee: Mmhmm, yeah.

Gridium: And it’s actually not always the….

Lee: I mean, what Ruth Cowan looks at in that book is the entry of so-called “labor-saving technologies” like the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, the microwave and other kinds of technologies like that as they enter the American home. And what she finds is, ironically, those technologies often went hand-in-hand with kind of rising cleanliness and hygiene standards in our culture. So, instead of leading to mother doing less work, those technologies literally led to more work for mothers – that’s the punchline of the title.

Gridium: Mmhmm. Are there other…

Lee: I mean, I think that…

Gridium: …examples or… is that a natural part? You know, where is it the case that… how do we know if an innovation will lead to more or less work? Is there anyway of knowing that a priori?

Lee: I think that’s a great question that, you know… it depends on the space of whether that’s been answered or not. You’ve seen it a lot in kind of current debate about whether all the new robotic technologies are going to take away all of our jobs or something like that.

Gridium: Right.

Lee: And then there’s another whole school that says actually, kind of introducing technologies like that creates a bunch of other kinds of jobs. So there’s not loss necessarily of work.

But I think that what Ruth Cowan’s book reminds us is that technology is part of the picture. Like the thing, the device that we’re going to put into an organization or a way of life. But then there’s also the kind of cultural expectation that’s kind of driving… not driving things but another part of it, right? So, if we introduce a technology that’s meant to save labor, but then our cultural expectation around whatever that work does goes up, we could actually end up producing more work.

It seems that another way to think about modern or industrial culture is that part of what we’ve done in creating the world, the modern world that we kind of expect, is we’ve introduced a bunch of new systems into it and that includes things like roadways, railroads… all the transportation for structure, electrical systems, communications networks, sewer and plumbing… you know, all of these systems are what really creates the modern experience of living and working in buildings that have controlled climates and that we have all the gadgets we expect there to be there.

And what I think what we’re trying to draw attention to is what we’ve done there is we’ve created this massive technological systems that require tech care and upkeep, right? And that’s a lot of work. Gridium knows that very well when you’re looking at the space of buildings.

Now in some industries and some spaces, like the chemical or petroleum industries are going to do a really good job of maintaining their equipment because it’s really important to their bottom line; they have great maintenance routines. But then in some other places in the United States this is especially true of like public works and public infrastructures like our roads and our railroads and other things, there isn’t that care. So, what we’re trying to show, we’re trying to kind of give people a broader picture of how technology works in modern society and then what we’re going to have to do if we want that system to kind of keep healthy and function for us.

Gridium: How much work do you think it is to maintain existing technology to keep the world working?

Lee: It differs a lot by industry, so this is an interesting problem because your listeners might be interested in is this book, “The Shock of the Old” by David Edgerton. And Edgerton in a chapter on maintenance in that book, he tries to look at economic measures of human activity, like “national perspective of activity” and gets at maintenance.

And it turns out to be really hard because those measures often don’t measure that because the surveys don’t look at them. But we have some information about industries by industry stuff. And the one I like to look at as an example is that the software industry today is often taken to be kind of like, “Well, it’s Silicon Valley and its cutting edge and it’s all those things…” right? And yet, when you look at organizational buckets around software, something like 70% of budget goes to maintaining software: upkeep, fixing bugs and all that kind of stuff. Whereas only about 7 or 8% of organizational budgets goes into design, which is where you’d see innovation. So in that industry at least, it’s extremely high – it’s like 70% of the work…

Gridium: Yup.

Lee: …goes into maintenance.

Gridium: Do you think that there’s a macro-economic opportunity to put people to work bringing down deferred maintenance budgets? Well, debts rather than budgets?

Lee: (Laughs) Yeah. I mean, for sure I think that we should be doing a lot more maintenance of public infrastructures all around the country and I think that that would be great for jobs and the economy, overall.
An example I like to use here is that some of your listeners might know that the DC Metro subway system had to close down a couple lines because there were fires last year, and those fires turned out to be a result of deferred maintenance. So, our transportation infrastructure is unhealthy and if, you know, we put money into it, it would create a lot of jobs and opportunities. And, it would even create opportunities for innovation I think, if we created the right kind of market which could create some positive technological change.

Gridium: Yeah. So Lee, if I’m hearing you correctly, and please, correct me if I’ve got this wrong. But it’s not necessarily the case that a focus on innovation is somehow a path to a steampunky-type dystopia?

Lee: (Laughs) No, no I don’t think that’s right. Yeah…

Gridium: Instead there is this balance that we need to come together as a society to strike between maintaining and creating. Or we need to better understand the difference between innovation as a concept and technology as an asset.

Lee: Right, right. Yeah, I like how you put it at the end there: new things versus technology as an asset.

I think what we’ve been trying to do with The Maintainers is try to put forward a grounded or more-accurate picture of technology – the technology lifecycle as a whole, right? And processes of innovation or introducing new things to the world are certainly a part of that, but they’re not… innovation isn’t even close in priority and in fact, it’s not even the biggest part of that. It’s a small part of that. And so, our hope is that if we can have this kind of more fundamental picture and start from there, then we can have better policies and better decisions being made, you know, on the part of organizations and companies and all these things.

I’ve written before on how we should redesign information policy, for instance, right? To get better innovation, so… I do still put hope in some forms of innovation. It’s just we’re trying to create a more grounded perspective on these issues.

Gridium: When you say a more grounded perspective, I think you mean that popular culture focuses almost exclusively on innovation and was this capped for you and Andy by the Walter Isaacson book? Or you know, other literature that you see around innovation and have you started to sense the change in the “tea leaves” around our cultural values with an exclusive focus on innovation?.

Lee: The Isaacson book — this is a book called “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” — was kind of like the last straw for me and Andy, my co-author. Yeah.

Gridium: Have you been keeping track at all of the “space junk” problem? Did you see last week that there was a company based out of Japan that had tried to release a tether which was going to gather some space junk and then bring it back down to earth and in that re-entry process, burn up?

Lee: I mean, I think that that’s a beautiful metaphor of the innovation process. It’s like all we’ve done for the most part so far is plan about how to get new things up into space and like (Laughs), talking about how to care for that space and make sure that it works for everybody is only something we’re being forced to think about now, yeah.

Gridium: Is that when maintenance becomes important, when we’re forced to think about it?

Lee: Yeah. Well, I think about this a lot not just with maintenance but with innovation. So it’s like, the very kind of most basic social-scientific problem is how do things become problems for humans? We know that apes will build tools like they’ll stack boxes, which they normally don’t do, in order to reach a banana that you hang from the ceiling. And I think that there’s a lot of that going on with inventions and innovation too, that inventors like Edison and people become fixated on things they take to be problems that they think they can solve.

And so I think that, I’m just trying to see it as a basic social thing, and I think maintenance is the same kind of thing. Either you’ll have a disaster, you’ll have a problem, or they’ll just be a smart engineer like the people who work at your firm who come along and say, “You know, you could get a lot of value or save a lot of money if you turn this into a problem and really improve your maintenance routine.”

So, yes I think often we’re kind of like forced to confront those things. But other times there’s kind of entrepreneurial or smart people come along and see potential in something.

Gridium: And how did Isaacson’s book motivate you guys to start The Maintainers?

Lee: We had already been criticizing kind of innovation craze and other work before that, for a couple years before that. But then that book came out and that gave Andy the opportunity to make the joke that we should create another volume called “The Maintainers: How Bureaucrats, Standards, Engineers and Introverts Create Technology that Kind of Works Most of the Time”…

Gridium: (Laughs)

Lee: And we made that joke online and it kind of started gathering a life of its own or something like that. And we had a chance to write this essay on the online magazine, Aeon. We held this conference called “The Maintainers.”

And you know, what I would say about your question about the tea leaves if that both the conference and the essay took off in ways that we could’ve never predicted, because they were covered in like The Atlantic, and Guardian, Le Mond and I was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and…

Gridium: There you go.

Lee: …many, many more people read the essay than will ever read most of my academic work, right? So, we found that, this kind of criticism of innovation, and this attempt to refocus or put this more grounded perspective which you described very well, resonated with large audiences that we’d never even anticipated. So, I guess…

Gridium: That’s actually quite hopeful.

Lee: …my hope is that the… yeah, yeah. My hope is that we’re kind of heading in a new direction and I think that there’s a lot of kind of fatigue with the empty rhetoric that’s innovation today.

Gridium: So, you’re saying that a steampunk future is not…

Lee: (Laughs) No. I hope not. No.

Gridium: …that a steampunk future is not necessarily where we’re headed.

Lee: Yeah. I mean, I really believe that if we’re just focusing on the United States for instance–if we went to a global perspective it would be more complicated–but, I really think that when it comes to the differences between the two political parties right now, there are really deep questions about technology and where we need to hear for the future. I mean, both parties recognize that American infrastructure is in bad shape and something needs to happen. Both parties realize that there’s not great jobs out there and there’s questions about manufacturing or how to produce good-paying jobs so that Americans can have the American Dream. That’s very technological.

So, part of… Andy and I think that The Maintainers has the advantage that it appeals to some kind of Conservatives who think that we need to take care of things, like what we’ve inherited, like infrastructure. And it also appeals to Progressives who think that capitalism, to function well, kind of needs an active hand in it, right? To shape it. And I think that it’s really incumbent on all of us to put forward positive vision where our technological society can go, because I think the kind of default position today is hopelessness or cynicism or pessimism or something like that.

Gridium: Right.

Lee: And so, I think we all have to like band together to put forward positive visions of where we can go.

Gridium: I agree Lee.

If we’ve piqued your curiosity, we have compiled some further reading. I’ve got a link here at the Aeon piece which you can find by Googling it’s title, “Innovation is Overvalued: Maintenance Matters More.” And Lee, you’ve mentioned a few times so far The Maintainers conference and more information can be found there at themaintainers.org. And of course, we explore more concepts like this on the Gridium blog at gridium.com.
If people have questions, please e-mail them at info@gridium.com and Lee’s e-mail, lee.vinsel@gmail.com.

Lee: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on Millen. This has been terrific. Thank you to the audience for listening.

Gridium: Yes, thank you Lee for joining.

And I should say that we’ll be continuing this conversation with Professor Russell, so in the meantime, stay tuned for that. But otherwise, farewell.

About Millen Paschich

Millen has been thinking about the built environment since he was four, when he started with site walks on residential construction projects. He began his career at Cambridge Associates and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, buildings, businesses, and green chile burritos!

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