Innovation, Control, Context: Part 1 of my notes on “The Maintainers”

About two weeks ago, I attended “The Maintainers,” a conference on technology history that emphasized the necessity and difficulty of maintenance. You can read more about it here.

The biggest point I want to make about the conference as a whole is that it was conceived and organized in response to the overwhelming emphasis on “innovation” in popular histories and conceptions of technology. The term, “innovation” is so frequently used that it nearly loses any sense of meaning, as this event demonstrates. There are issues with defining an event like “The Maintainers” in opposition to a term that has proven so flexible and amorphous that it can mean many things to many different people. Throughout the conference, the exact parameters of “maintenance” came up frequently, with, for example, some disagreements about how repair relates to maintenance.

However, even if maintenance was not always clearly defined for the group, the breadth of speakers was impressive. With historians, activists, and artists speaking, the flexibility of “maintenance” being defined in opposition to “innovation,” seemed to allow for more voices in what could have been an overly academic conference. Without clear parameters for “maintenance,” people were able to speak about things from internet governance to community stool libraries. It was refreshing.

Now, I have two responses to the conference. The first I will cover in this blog post, and the second (about data management, research reproducibility, and scholarly communications) I will cover in a later blog post.

Innovation, Control, and Context

When one begins to look at the ways in which different start-ups have tried to “innovate” office communications and organization, the line between innovation and maintenance becomes unclear. Slack, for example, has been heralded as an innovative solution for office communication and has been covered by news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine. Yet, one of the talks, given by Ellan Spero titled,” ‘A Card for Everything, Miss Whittle!’ – A Maintainer’s Approach to the Organization of Academic-Industrial Research at the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research,” outlines the practice of office communication as “maintenance.” What is so different about these two scenarios that they are viewed and defined so differently?

First, let me give some background on Miss Whittle and the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research, as taken from my notes on Spero’s talk. Lois Whittle worked in the office of the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research before it merged with the Carnegie Institute of Technology to become Carnegie Mellon University. She devised a system for organizing the fellowship agreements at the Mellon Institute that enabled efficient communication across a complex organization. Effectively, Miss Whittle was doing the same type work- and published on it in the Journal of Industrial Chemistry – as Slack.

There are several obvious differences between these two situations. The first is the historic time period. Miss Whittle worked mostly in the early part of the 20th century, and she worked with different tools than many people use now. The second is gender. Miss Whittle is a woman and Slack’s founder and CEO is male. I don’t want to downplay either of these differences, and there is a lot to be said about the term “innovation” and how it relates to race, gender, and class.

However, what I’m seeing as the main demarcation of maintenance vs. innovation in this instance is control – control over the shape and future of the company and the technologies being created. The entire purpose of Slack is the streamlining of office communications. Miss Whittle’s work is ancillary to the work of the Mellon Institute. Although both situations deal with office communication and organization, Slack is in control of its product and how it can be used. Miss Whittle responded to a need within a company, and Miss Whittle did not have control over how her technique would be used over time or if it would be used. Slack is able to put out its technologies as a product to be bought and sold, and it has control over this product. Control over the technology makes it appear more “innovative” because one can decide how it is marketed. It is the purpose of the company rather than a by-product of its work.

Of course, with control over a product, one has the ability to sell that product. In some ways, “innovation” may be best understood as a term connected the particular shape of capital and technology today, much like “disruption,” as you can read more about in this New Yorker article. Miss Whittle had nothing to sell – can this be tied to a difference in perception of these two separate technologies?

In any case, innovation and maintenance (in so far as one defines it in opposition to innovation) seem dependent on context more than the nature of the technology created. The reason why a piece of technology is deemed innovation or maintenance has little to do with the technology created and much more to do with structures in which that technology was created and was/is used.

 

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