Office Communications as Innovation and Maintenance

Today's post is by Nicole Contaxis, a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), where she is a working on a project preserving software developed at the NLM. You can read other reflections she's written on her blog.

Prioritizing maintenance in the history of technology can be framed as a response to the overwhelming emphasis on “innovation” in popular histories and conceptions of technology. This reactionary framing can present issues, particularly because “innovation” is used so often that it can lose nearly all sense of meaning, as this event demonstrates. When one uses “maintenance” as a counterpoint to such an amorphous term, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. Does repair, for example, fall under maintenance? Or, is repair only undertaken when maintenance fails?

Defining the parameters of maintenance is not easy, but perhaps not entirely necessary. By allowing for more flexible conception of maintenance, we can include more people and more activities in our conversations about technology and technology history. It may chafe some to work without clear boundaries, but it can create a more inclusive discussion. The conference which spurred this blog was itself refreshing because of the breadth of topics and speakers. Regardless of how one chooses to define or not define maintenance, it is also clear that the demarcation between maintenance and innovation may rely more on context than it does on the actual piece of technology.

To explain what I mean, I will use office communications and organization as a case study. Several start-ups have tried to “innovate” office communications and organization. Slack, for example, has been heralded as an innovative solution for office communication and has been covered by news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine. Yet, one of the talks at The Maintainers Conference, given by Ellan Spero titled," 'A Card for Everything, Miss Whittle!' - A Maintainer's Approach to the Organization of Academic-Industrial Research at the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research," outlines the practice of office communication as "maintenance." What is so different about these two scenarios that they can be viewed and defined so different?

First, allow me give some background on Miss Whittle and the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research, as taken from my notes on Spero's talk. Lois Whittle worked in the office of the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research before it merged with the Carnegie Institute of Technology to become Carnegie Mellon University. She devised a system for organizing the fellowship agreements at the Mellon Institute that enabled efficient communication across a complex organization. Effectively, Miss Whittle was doing the same type work- and published on it in the Journal of Industrial Chemistry - as Slack.

There are several obvious differences between these two situations. The first is the historic time period. Miss Whittle worked mostly in the early part of the 20th century, and she worked with different mostly with index cards, not computers. The second is gender. Miss Whittle is a woman and Slack's founder and CEO is male. I don't want to downplay either of these differences, and there is a lot to be said about the term "innovation" as it relates to race, gender, and class.

However, what I see the main boundary of maintenance and innovation is control - control over the shape and future of the company and the technologies being created. The entire purpose of Slack is the streamlining of office communications. Miss Whittle's work was ancillary to the work of the Mellon Institute. Although both situations deal with office communication and organization, Slack is in control of its product and how it can be used. Miss Whittle responded to a need within a company, and Miss Whittle did not have control over how her technique would be used over time or even if it would be used. With control, Slack is able to put out its technologies as a product to be bought and sold. Not only can Slack market its product as “innovative,” it can also appear more valuable because it has the capacity to make more capital that can be explicitly tied to the technology. Any monetary gains from Miss Whittle’s work would have been more difficult to measure.

Value can obviously be calculated through a variety of means that do not tie directly to capital, but doe to the particular shape of technology companies today, capital produced by a technology and its value can be easily conflated. As a concept, “innovation” seems inextricable from the complete from of the current technology market, much like "disruption," as you can read more about in this New Yorker article. Miss Whittle, which clearly an important member of the Mellon Institute staff, had nothing to sell.

The boundary between innovation and maintenance seems dependent on context more than the nature of the technology created. The reason why a piece of technology is deemed innovation or maintenance has little to do with the technology created and much more to do with structures in which that technology was created and was/is used.