“We Spend Way Too Much Time Fixated on the New:” An Interview with Lee Vinsel

Lee Vinsel is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech and one of the conveners of The Maintainers, a global, interdisciplinary research network made up of those who are interested in “the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world.”

TGR: What led you to begin the Maintainers movement? 

Starting over five years ago now, my friends and I realized that we were annoyed by all the hype and buzzwords around “innovation,” which you hear about constantly in higher education, and we would make fun of it together. I began going around giving talks where I would pretend to be a member of a 12-Step group called “InnoAnon,” a support group for recovering innovation-speakers.

Things really got going, however, when Walter Isaacson published his book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. We thought Isaacson’s book was problematic for lots of reasons, including because it overemphasized the role of the shiny and new and missed the constant presence of old, crumbling things in everyday human life. My friend and co-author suggested that we should write a counter-volume, to be titled The Maintainers: How Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Created Technologies that Kind of Work Most of the Time. We started playing with this idea on social media and blogs, and it soon took off and had a life of its own.

TGR: How did those conversations lead to the conferences and Aeon essay?

The Maintainers idea was gathering momentum, but two things pushed it even further. First, Andy and I decided to hold a happy hour dedicated to The Maintainers at our main professional organization, the Society for the History of Technology. We thought a few people would show up, but soon the bar was standing room only. Everyone was excited, and we thought, “OK, we should hold a conference.”

Then our friend, the historian of technology Patrick McCray, talked about the idea at the World Economic Forum, which led to us being invited to write the Aeon article, “Hail the Maintainers.” The article and conference occurred on the same day in April 2016, and both went somewhat viral. They got picked up by The Atlantic, Guardian, Le Monde, and several other outlets around the globe.

TGR: What, overall, would you say you have learned so far from your conferences?

If anything, I think the conferences have shown us that there is a lot we don’t know. The conference papers (many of which are available at our homepage, themaintainers.org) cover a wide array of topics, from software maintenance to Mary Poppins. But what the gatherings have highlighted is how much more research there is to do. For instance, we do not have a very good historical understanding of how maintenance has been organized either within corporations or within governments – especially at the state and local level where most maintenance in the USA in fact occurs.

TGR: What has the response been, both from academics and non-academics?

I think the most surprising part for Andy and me has been not only how many people have connected with our arguments but with how many different types of people, folks from all different professions and backgrounds. Many of the individuals who contact us identify as maintainers or love someone who is one, and they feel that people in these roles are often overlooked, undervalued, often underpaid, even neglected. Moreover, particularly in the United States, most people realize that we are collectively doing a bad job of caring for our nation’s infrastructure even while we talk incessantly about “innovation.”

TGR: How does all of this relate to your ideas about the relationship between religion and technology?

Religion and technology connect in so many ways it’s hard to know where to begin. For The Maintainers, I typically point out that most religions have some focus on conservingcaring, and maintaining for people, traditions, and everyday things. This is very explicit in, for instance, Jewish Talmudic and other texts, which prescribe the inspection and repair of holy objects. But I think it is more generally true of all spiritual traditions, including Christianity, which calls us to care for the least among us. As a culture, we spend way too much time fixated on the new and novel, on “innovation” and “entrepreneurship,” and far too little time attending to the people and things that really need our care. It’s often totally mundane, ordinary activities that would help people.

 

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