Andrew L. Russell is a historian of technology and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Lee Vinsel is a professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech. Together, their writing on the topics of this book have appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and Wired.
Below, Andrew shares 5 key insights from their new book, The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. Listen to the audio version—read by Andrew himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Innovation is not a panacea.
We’re led to believe that innovation is synonymous with progress—but novelty isn’t necessarily good. Think of celebrated market disruptors like Enron, the fraudulent company that was named America’s most innovative company five years running by Fortune magazine. The “innovation delusion” refers to the harms that follow from pinning too many hopes on disruptive innovation. The truth is that complex problems like healthcare, financial stability, or global climate catastrophe cannot be cured by a simple technological fix. These problems, like all important problems, call for deeper and more meaningful engagement.
2. We’re enduring a crisis of care.
Many of the systemic problems in American society—like a broken healthcare system and insufficient funding for public education—are symptoms of the same underlying problem, which philosopher Nancy Fraser describes as a “crisis of care.” The term “care work” encompasses the labor that builds and sustains social bonds; examples include nursing, teaching, childcare, and domestic work such as doing dishes, laundry, and so on. In American society, care work is often low-status, undercompensated, and taken for granted. But the consequences of a world without care are dire—public health experts are gravely concerned about “deaths of despair,” a term that refers to suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related fatalities. We need a renewed commitment to a culture of care and support for caregivers.
“Complex problems like healthcare, financial stability, or global climate catastrophe cannot be cured by a simple technological fix.”
3. Maintenance matters more than innovation.
Look around and note what technologies you see. If you’re inside a building, you probably see walls—that is, layered combinations of steel, cement, wood, screws, nails, and paint. You may also see phones, televisions, or computers, for example. Notice that the technologies most essential for your well-being are old; if you had to banish either glass windows or an Amazon Echo from your home, which would you choose? Also notice that old technologies tend to be forgotten and taken for granted; you might not even think of concrete or glass as technologies, but they are. A final point is that technologies, if left alone, lose value over time. Value depends on maintenance, efforts to ensure longevity. A new smartphone, for instance, becomes an expensive, filthy paperweight unless we update the software and clean the case.
4. Maintenance is exciting.
I often hear people say that maintenance is important, but boring. But for people who understand the rewards of hard work, maintenance already holds a central place in their thoughts and actions. For individuals, exercise maintains the body, while rest, meditation, and prayer maintain the mind and spirit. In businesses and schools, maintenance is the key to success. Even in the digital industries, kings of disruption like Netflix and Amazon keep customers happy because they’ve invested in the reliability of their data and distribution networks. In schools, learning is easier and more fun when the roof isn’t leaking, the desk isn’t broken, and the equipment is in good working order. Even the work of environmental conservation is, at root, the work of maintenance. Young climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate are inspiring millions of people to change the way they consume, invest, and vote.
5. Maintainers deserve better.
Due to the financial pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of essential workers like teachers, firefighters, and social workers have been laid off, furloughed, or have endured reductions in pay. These are the maintainers—they’re involved in upkeep, repair, caregiving, and the ordinary labor that keeps our society going. Yet within most organizations and in society at large, maintenance roles are perceived as low-status, and they’re poorly compensated. Maintainers deserve better; for starters, Congress could ensure that Americans have affordable healthcare, and raise the minimum wage. We can help, too—we can advocate for maintainers by recommending them for a promotion or a raise at work. We can speak up at meetings of the local school board or city council. And we can support candidates for elected office who understand the importance of maintenance and care work. As we endure and recover from this pandemic, we have the chance to recommit to the people who sustain our quality of life.
To listen to the audio version read by Andrew Russell, download the Next Big Idea App today: