THURSDAY ⚡️ The Innovation Delusion ft. Lee Vinsel
It's Time to Maintain
At least on my corner of the internet, I’ve been seeing tweets about ~maintenance~ and making fun of #disruption for ages now. Yeah, yeah, it’s no longer that cool to be “building something new.” That said, though, I’ve often wondered whether there’s more to be said about maintenance vs novelty beyond pithy one-liners. This book gives a resounding yes.
📖 The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell
Our guest for this Thursday, June 30 is Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, and coauthor (with Andrew Russell) of The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most.
Join us next Thursday for a Q&A on maintenance as a political practice.
💰 our take: it’s time to maintain!
By Alexa Jakob
When I was searching for jobs as a new grad, I had a phone screen with the recruiter for a Design Engineer job. I had applied for Design Engineering since I thought that’s what would be the most interesting, and the most related to my degree: I studied electrical engineering, and our curriculum focused on designing and building circuits. “Wouldn’t you consider doing testing or validation?” she said, “We can switch you over to design after a few years, but validation is our biggest need. Most people out of school don’t know that this is a career path, so I always try to tell new grads about it. You’ll get to write scripts and understand hardware - it’ll be fun!” I politely declined and said I wanted to focus on only design engineering. That’s what I had been taught, and I thought it would be more interesting and valued than writing tests for others’ designs.
Our technology industry has a design-first culture. We value designers, makers, hackers, innovators—whatever buzzword is hip of late—looking for shiny new futuristic technologies to invest in; fetishizing the new at the expense of the reliable.
The Innovation Delusion, by technology historians Lee Vinsel (a professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech) and Andrew L Russell (a professor of history and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute), seeks to interrupt this thinking by making a case to go back to basics, to focus on maintenance, to do thoughtful work that responds to real needs. An antidote to the hypergrowth mantras of the technology industry (“it’s time to build”, “move fast and break things”), the book calls for a paradigm shift in how we treat existing infrastructure and invites us to turn towards reliability.
Vinsel and Russell make a distinction between innovation hype, which they dub innovation-speak, and actual innovation. Much like maintenance, actual innovation is done quietly and only acknowledged once a breakthrough is made. Hype is what makes the headlines and you hear about from your uncle at the BBQ (“is AI really going to kill us all???”).
Maintenance is often thankless work, and professions like Quality Assurance testers and validation engineers are often devalued in engineering organizations. In fact, professions like these have been some of the most to unionize in the tech industry (at companies like Activision Blizzard), in response to long hours, low pay, and precarious contracts. Maintenance work is both extremely necessary and invisible, and only becomes visible when something that is supposed to work simply doesn’t.
These ideas may seem simple, but Vinsel and Russell show just how surprising this inclination can be. In many ways, a focus on maintenance is radical in a capitalist and growth-focused society. Preemptively fixing systems, practicing gratitude for what we have, and turning away from optimizing time, material, and energy towards growth and instead towards preservation seems nearly impossible in today’s tech industry.
That said, even if one cares primarily about growth, maintenance is still a good investment since it extends the life of existing infrastructure. It may seem ironic to optimize the lifespan of a system or object through maintenance; after all, focusing on maintenance should involve forgetting about optimization. The optimization criterion is different, though. When focusing on sustainability rather than profit, allowing a politics of maintenance to permeate every design and operational decision makes perfect sense.
Maintainers develop deep systems knowledge that can be deployed to carefully end the life of certain technologies. The book presents the climate crisis as an example of a clear opportunity to transition towards a maintenance society. Since growth is linked to greenhouse gas emissions, developing and maintaining low-carbon equipment is imperative to acting on climate change. The authors argue that, precisely because of their wealth of knowledge accumulated through maintenance work, maintainers can play a key technical role in bringing about “end of life” of certain technologies, such as transitioning away from fossil fuels, and devising solutions to carbon-intensive industries. Moving forward, their expertise will also be required in maintaining new solar panels, carbon capture plants, and regenerative agriculture. In my opinion, this perspective is missing in the current conversation around climate. Although hydrogen and direct air capture garner headlines, they will not solve the climate crisis alone. In order to have a just transition to decarbonized energy, it’s crucial that we leverage the expertise of fossil fuel workers and other maintainers, and this framework raises an interesting path towards building solidarity.
Although the book is not explicitly oriented towards technologists, I think this is an essential read for anyone working on systems of any scale. Some of my main takeaways are:
Creating a maintenance culture is more than just investing in maintenance (raising salaries for workers, etc). It’s about creating a culture where people’s input is valued and there is time to devote to a backlog of tasks.
Our education system focuses mostly on new design rather than maintenance. When educating students, stress the importance of maintenance, since this occupies most of an engineer’s time.
Make friends with the maintainers in your organization - yes, the QA testers and site reliability engineers, but also the janitors - and ask for their input. Too often maintainers are invisible. Consider how your organization treats maintainers, and seek to make their jobs easier however you can.
This “innovation delusion,” as the authors call it, has its roots in culture and history, but I would have appreciated more discussion of the ways it is reinforced through funding programs and other economic and political nudges. Oftentimes, a federal or state government will provide an initial grant to build a bridge, community center, or sewer system, saddling municipalities with operating costs without the tax base to fund them.
I’m also left wondering: how do we fix systems that have become too expensive to fix? The authors write about the United States’ Department of Defense, which spends 40% of its budget annually on maintenance and operations, which is the largest proportion of its massive budget, and yet its facilities are still badly maintained. They argue that in some cases, allocating more money will not fix the problem. Where, then, should this come from? More locally, how do we fix the water plant when the residents of a town cannot fund repairs through taxes, and federal and state programs only shell out grants for capital projects?
Of course, there is no right answer to these questions. But Vinsel and Russell’s commitment to drawing attention to these issues is inspiring. As a reader, I came away with a new perspective and eager to apply the politics of maintenance to my own work. As such, The Innovation Delusion is very well worth a read, and applicable both to people working in software and in more traditional engineering roles. I encourage anyone who cares about building resilient systems to read it, to set you on your way to developing a politics of repair in your work.
Alexa Jakob is an electrical engineer and climate organizer. She calls Toronto, ON and Queens, NY home. Find her on Twitter @wolframalexa.
only tweets in microdoses this week because reading is hard
don’t have much intellectual to say about roe (what is there to say, really?) — here’s a vaguely tech related take I guess
and a non tech take
oldie but goodie from reboot friend jacky
VERY cool…. and then look at this visualization
💝 closing note
(maintenance good etc but the supreme court could use some disruption)
See you Thursday,