Without doubt, technological innovations are tremendously important. We hear the term “innovation" seemingly everywhere: In books; magazines; white papers; blogs; classrooms; offices; factories; government hearings; podcasts; and more. But for all this discussion, have we really gotten much clarity? For Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell, coauthors of the new book The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most, the answer is “Not exactly." On 2 December 2020, they joined Jean Kumagai, senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, for a Computer History Museum Live event to help decode innovation for the public. They shared what their experiences as historians of technology have taught them innovation is, and is not, and why they believe that an over-emphasis on innovation detracts from two pursuits they believe are of great importance to our present and our future: maintenance and care.
The conversation began with a discussion of some of the key terms used in the book: “innovation," “care," and what the coauthors call “innovation speak."
For Vinsel and Russell, their advocacy of expanded attention to, and practice of, maintenance and care is far from a turn away from technology. Rather, they argue, it is a call to pay attention to important issues that have always been present in technology.
Maintenance, for Vinsel and Russell, is anything but simple. There is a diversity of approaches to maintenance, some with great advantages over others. One of the starkest of these contrasts is between deferred maintenance and preventive maintenance.
Maintenance itself is not always a permanent solution. Vinsel and Russell discuss the inescapable question of when to cease maintenance and embrace retirement.
Maintenance, as with all things, is not without its costs, both direct and indirect. For the latter, the greater costs arise from a lack of maintenance and exacerbate injustice.
At even further extremes, the neglect of maintenance and care over time can constitute a disaster, not necessarily as suddenly as a storm, but rather as a “slow disaster." Conversely, continued investments in developing and maintaining infrastructures can become platforms for true innovations.
Kumagai challenged Vinsel and Russell to consider the possible opportunity costs of increasing investment in maintenance at the expense of innovation.
Further, she challenged them to consider what a member of the general public could or should do to foster this maintenance mindset.
For Vinsel and Russell, the adoption of a maintenance mindset changes the way in which one views technologies. For example, it frames the question of expanding technological systems or the adoption of new technologies as taking on increased “technological debt."
Just as maintenance is not simple in Vinsel and Russell's account, nor is it dull or static. Indeed, the pair see maintenance as essential to creative moves to sustainability in the face of the climate crisis.
Kumagai brought the conversation to a close by asking Vinsel and Russell to participate in CHM's "one word" initiative, with each sharing their one word of advice for a young person starting their career.
Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell's book is The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most (Currency, 2020). The Maintainers website has more information about the group they cofounded.
Editor's note: This post originally appeared on the blog of the Computer History Museum.