This blog post was written by Lee Vinsel, a co-organizer of The Maintainers.
Over the coming year, The Maintainers will be beginning a number of new initiatives, including a newsletter, a podcast, and re-enlivening this blog. Much of this will be made possible via support from Virginia Tech, particularly its Department of Science, Technology, and Society, where I began working just a few weeks ago.
These new initiatives and the fact that the conversation around The Maintainers has been going on for nearly two years provide an opportunity to reflect on where we have been, where we are going, and how the conversation has been taking shape. In this post, I’d like to consider one dimension of that evolution.
First, it’s fair to say that we have spent the last two years learning about what’s out there. My co-organizer and co-author Andy Russell and I were fundamentally influenced by the historians David Edgerton, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, and Kevin Borg but we were only dimly aware of the interesting work on maintenance and repair in the broader field of Science and Technology Studies. Work by Chris Henke, Steven Graham & Nigel Thrift, Jérôme Denis & David Pontille, Steve Jackson, Daniela Rosner, Lara Houston, and many others has now shaped our thinking considerably. The learning process is continual and humbling and serves as a constant reminder of how little we know. Recently, for instance, Andy and I have been having a fascinating exchange with Paul Schulman, a Senior Research Fellow at Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. His work on “high reliability organizations” strikes us as a really rich way to think about maintenance and repair in the context of complex organizations and large scale technical systems. We are always happy to hear from new voices, and those voices come from the most surprising places.
This sense of enormity and serendipity has led us to foster a spirit of openness wherever we can. The Maintainers has often been most productive in spaces, like the conferences, with few preconceptions of who might show up. We have a policy of not defining maintenance, for instance, and individuals have taken it in a number of directions. Some people cast maintenance in a narrow sense to focus on high-skill work on machines and other technologies, especially in industry, where others view maintenance in the broadest possible sense to include the conservation and preservation of social forms, heritage, and traditions. We also focus on communicating these ideas to a popular audience, including our partnership with the online magazine Aeon and, as frequently as possible, including practitioners, policy-makers, and other non-academics. This broad tent leads to fruitful, if sometimes chaotic, exchange.
At the same time, it’s also helpful to be aware of different conversations and concerns that have bubbled up to the surface. I’m sure there’s a million different ways to carve up what’s gone on, but increasingly I’ve felt that there are three fundamental strands of The Maintainers, namely 1. a critique of innovation-speak, 2. an interest in the history and social science of maintenance, repair, and infrastructure, and 3. a concern with the practical upshots that thinking about maintenance has for organizations, educational institutions, policy-making, and other spheres.
Some individuals are interested in all of those strands; others in a few; and some only in one. That’s hunky dory, but it’s helpful to be clear about different interests, lest we become confused and frustrated. For the remainder of this post, I’ll consider each strand.
The Critique of Innovation-Speak
It’s important to remember that The Maintainers literally started as a joke. For years, Andy, other colleagues, and I had grown tired, annoyed, and sick of all the inflated hype around “innovation,” which is especially hot around university campuses. Indeed, we started The Maintainers at Stevens Institute of Technology, which had mindlessly trademarked the motto, The Innovation University. Our exasperation came to a head with the publication of Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. We thought Isaacson’s book was a perfect representation of much that was wrong with innovation-speak, including a fetishization of the new and an unrealistic picture of human life with technology, which is often old, rusty, crusty, and breaking down. While taking a shower, Andy came up with a spoof. He suggested we publish a counter-volume to be titled, The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Digital Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time. We quickly expanded our coverage to all technologies, not just digital ones. (Andy is a historian of computing and head of the computer history group SIGCIS, which explains the original focus of the joke.) We began playing around with this idea online, and soon, fostered by our essay in Aeon and conferences, The Maintainers had taken on a life of its own.
Our critique of innovation-speak fits within a broader emerging space, which is sometimes called critical innovation studies. Here too, David Edgerton is a leader and inspiration to us. Additionally, Benoit Godin began writing a critical history of the innovation idea in the mid-2000s, work that culminated in a number of publications, including his book, Innovation Contested: The Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries. Moreover, my colleague at Virginia Tech, Matt Wisnioski, is writing a history of innovation thinking in the United States, tentatively titled Everyone an Innovator. Many other scholars around the globe, including Christina Dunbar-Hester, Andrew Schrock, and Sebastian Pftotenhauer, are similarly studying the notion of “innovation” and activities and reforms that are being undertaken in its name. I hope to see this area of inquiry develop still further. In one related venture, David C. Brock, Margaret Graham, Patrick McCray, and I will be holding a workshop next summer at the Computer History Museum, generously sponsored by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, to examine—both critically and positively—the notion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has been gaining traction in some quarters.
Some people assume that Andy and I are opposed to innovation—whatever that would mean—when in reality we are critical of the ideology around the notion of “innovation” and (what we perceive as) damaging changes that idea is used to justify. Sometimes we are invited to give talks just to beat up on innovation-speak and not to reflect on maintenance or maintainers. Savaging innovation-speak is instinctual, knee-jerk behavior for us, so I’m sure it’ll continue, and we are quite interested in helping foster critical innovation studies as a viable sub-field. But we are more focused these days on the productive and positive work that is being done in the other strands.
The Historical and Social Scientific Study of Maintenance, Repair, and Related Topics
The Maintainers has played some small part in developing interest around the academic study of maintenance, repair, and related topics, like infrastructure and disaster. Here, it is typically helpful to set aside The Maintainers original focus, both its criticism of innovation-speak and its concerns with American problems and policies, including crumbling infrastructure and maintainers who lack adequate pay and benefits. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the American roots of The Maintainers can blind us to the realities of maintenance and repair in other geographical and historical contexts. To give one example, while much maintenance work is low-status today, historically maintainers have held high-status roles, including as union leaders and members of the “Aristocracy of Labor.” Maintenance and repair are important topics that demand to be studied on their own terms, rather than through the lens of contemporary problems.
As I mentioned above, many people have already been studying these topics, and we hope to engender further conversations. We have been heartened to hear people organizing panels on maintenance at conferences far outside our traditional fields. For instance, Sabir Khan, an architecture professor at Georgia Tech, is organizing panels on maintenance and repair at conferences of both the College Art Association and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. In one attempt to foster such research, the historian Lissa Roberts has taken the lead in organizing a two-part workshop titled “Technologies-in-Use,” which will draw together over a dozen historians from Europe and the United States who cover a wide variety of periods and geographical areas.
Upshots for Organizations, Educational Institutions, Policy-Making, etc.
Finally, some people involved in The Maintainers network are interested in taking the lessons from studies of maintenance, repair, infrastructure, and related topics and translating those lessons into changes in the world. The book I’m co-writing with Andy focuses centrally on what maintenance means for policy around infrastructure, education, labor, healthcare, and corporate governance. We even have a chapter that highlights innovations in maintenance practices! Melinda Hodkiewicz, an engineering professor at the University of Western Australia, and her colleagues have been working for years to improve maintenance practices within industry, including for the sake of reducing injuries and deaths for maintainers. Young firms, like ARGO, Fiix, Gridium, iFixit, and Upkeep Maintenance Management, are introducing new digital maintenance and repair systems. Drexel professor Scott Knowles has been drawing on social studies of maintenance and infrastructure to advocate for changes in US disaster policy, including commentary on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. (You should check out the interview with Scott on On the Media.) Finally, Andy and I have been working with Jessica Meyerson, the Research Program Officer that the Educopia Institute, to design workshops and rethink curricula in engineering, digital preservation, and other professional fields in light of maintenance and the ethics of care. There are many other “applied” initiatives around maintenance studies and related areas, and we are always excited to hear about more.
We have many plans for the future, including a podcast, several workshops, and a further conference, Maintainers III, which will be held in Washington, DC. But if experience tells us anything, it’s that the most exciting developments will seem to come from nowhere, completely blindside us, and bowl us right over. We look forward to that.