Starting this afternoon, two of my smart, young (compared to me) colleagues are hosting a conference that questions our modern obsession with innovation. “The Maintainers” takes place at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey, April 7-9. Here is a description:
Many groups and individuals today celebrate “innovation.” The notion is influential not only in engineering and business, but also in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. For example, “innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories--such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. This conference takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.
Organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell, professors of science and technology studies at Stevens, spell out their view at greater length in an edgy Aeon essay, “Hail the Maintainers.” The sub-title notes: “Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more.”
Innovation has been linked to inequality and other ills, Vinsel and Russell point out. They cite the finding of historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan (who is speaking at Stevens this afternoon) that washing machines and vacuum cleaners, “which promised to save labor, literally created more work for mother as cleanliness standards rose, leaving women perpetually unable to keep up.”
Vinsel and Russell conclude: “Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?”
Excellent questions. I’m especially concerned about two kinds of innovation that arguably do more harm than good. The first involves medical technologies such as magnetic-resonance imaging and mammograms, which have boosted the costs but not the quality of health care in the U.S.
Then there is innovation in weapons, such as armed drones and “targeting killing” technologies. As Yale bioethicist Wendell Wallach (a recent speaker at Stevens) warns in his book A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control, the U.S. is “the world’s leading driver of an accelerating and ever-escalating arms race.”
I applaud Vinsel and Russell for organizing what promises to be a fascinating, important conference. (Kudos also to nuclear-weapons historian Alex Wellerstein, who will be speaking, for designing a cool poster, part of which is shown here.) I hope these scholars keep challenging innovation veneration.