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Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Innovation?46:52
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Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller talks about the new iPhone 11 Pro during an Apple special event on Sept. 10, 2019 in Cupertino, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller talks about the new iPhone 11 Pro during an Apple special event on Sept. 10, 2019 in Cupertino, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Innovation is the buzzword in our digital era. But our guests say we’d be better off if we slowed down and maintained and improved what we already have.

Guests

Andrew Russell, historian of technology and Dean of Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute. (@RussellProf) (@SUNYPolyInst)

Lee Vinsel, historian of technology, and professor of science and technology studies at Virginia Tech. (@STS_News) (@The_Maintainers)

Russell and Vinsel are working on a forthcoming book, "The Innovator’s Delusion: Maintenance, Care, and the Ordinary Technologies that Keep Our World Going."

From The Reading List

Aeon: "Hail the maintainers" — "Innovation is a dominant ideology of our era, embraced in America by Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the Washington DC political elite. As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

"The fates of nations on opposing sides of the Iron Curtain illustrate good reasons that led to the rise of innovation as a buzzword and organising concept. Over the course of the 20th century, open societies that celebrated diversity, novelty, and progress performed better than closed societies that defended uniformity and order.

"In the late 1960s in the face of the Vietnam War, environmental degradation, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and other social and technological disappointments, it grew more difficult for many to have faith in moral and social progress. To take the place of progress, 'innovation,' a smaller, and morally neutral, concept arose. Innovation provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting too much from them in the way of moral and social improvement.

"Before the dreams of the New Left had been dashed by massacres at My Lai and Altamont, economists had already turned to technology to explain the economic growth and high standards of living in capitalist democracies. Beginning in the late 1950s, the prominent economists Robert Solow and Kenneth Arrow found that traditional explanations – changes in education and capital, for example – could not account for significant portions of growth. They hypothesised that technological change was the hidden X factor. Their finding fit hand-in-glove with all of the technical marvels that had come out of the Second World War, the Cold War, the post-Sputnik craze for science and technology, and the post-war vision of a material abundance."

New York Times: "Opinion: Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance!" — "It’s been a bad summer for maintenance, especially in New York. Last month Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, underscoring a problem that New York subway riders understand all too well: The M.T.A. relies heavily on emergency repairs because it does not conduct sufficient preventive upkeep. Likewise, in the wake of two recent derailments that caused major disruptions, Pennsylvania Station this month closed aging tracks for repairs and reduced the number of trains serving the station — another example of the costs of neglecting maintenance.

"Sadly, the neglect of maintenance is not limited to New York, public transit or this summer. All varieties of American infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports, sewers — are in decrepit condition. Lead poisons the water systems of Flint, Mich., and hundreds of other cities and towns across the nation. The American Society of Civil Engineers considers 17 percent of American dams to be “high hazard potential,” including the one outside Oroville, Calif., that nearly collapsed in February.

"Why are we in this predicament? One obvious answer is that officials in federal, state and local government do not allocate the resources necessary for preventive maintenance. But their inaction is a symptom of a deeper problem, one that is too seldom discussed: Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.

"When Americans talk about technology, they often use 'innovation' as a shorthand. But 'innovation' refers only to the very early phases of technological development and use. It also tends to narrow the scope of technology to digital gadgets of recent vintage: iPhones, social media apps and so on. A more expansive conception of technology would take into account the diverse array of tools, including subways and trains, that we humans use to help us reach our goals."

New York Times: "Opinion: The Joy of Standards" — "Our modern existence depends on things we can take for granted. Cars run on gas from any gas station, the plugs for electrical devices fit into any socket, and smartphones connect to anything equipped with Bluetooth. All of these conveniences depend on technical standards, the silent and often forgotten foundations of technological societies.

"The objects that surround us were designed to comply with standards. Consider the humble 8-by-16-inch concrete block, the specifications of which are defined in the Masonry Society’s 'Building Code Requirements and Specification for Masonry Structures.'

"This book distills centuries of knowledge about the size and thickness of blocks, seismic design requirements and the use of materials like concrete, glass and mortar. Professionals worked through committees organized by the American Concrete Institute, American Society of Civil Engineers and the Masonry Society from 1977 to 1989 to foster consensus around this single national standard.

"The number of technical standards that go into some products is astonishing, and the complexity of the methods used to create these standards is perhaps even more remarkable. A 2010 study found that a laptop computer incorporates 251 standards. Companies such as I.B.M. and Microsoft created some of these standards — but only 20 percent of them. The other 80 percent of the laptop’s standards were developed by private or nongovernmental organizations that facilitate collaboration and cooperation among technical experts."

Stefano Kotsonis produced this hour for broadcast. 

This program aired on September 12, 2019.

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