Today is the first day of a conference at Stevens Institute of Technology called The Maintainers. The conference continues through the weekend, and some of the papers are available via the conference agenda. The keynote speaker was Ruth Schwartz Cowan, whose work on technology in the home resonates with the general theme of the conference, which I first saw highlighted by Lee Vinsel a little over a year ago. Historian Andrew Russell had proposed a response to a popular treatment of innovation in computing that focused on all the things required to keep the digital trains running on time. He called it The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Digital Infrastructures That Kind of Work Most of the Time.
Vinsel and Russell wrote this Aeon essay detailing the history of the rhetoric of innovation and critics of that rhetoric.
The notion behind this kind of work (which many others have contributed to, like Cowan and Edgerton and the host others Vinsel noted in that first post) is to explore the work of maintenance, infrastructure and the mundane activities that are so essential to keeping a system running. While this group is focused on digital maintainers, analog maintenance and upkeep is also ignored. Such things are also wholly absent from much public policy and political discussions around technology (even for things like massive walls).
The conference marks, at least it seems to me, the first step in what could be a long-term process to highlight all the things and people that work to keep things running – processes and people that are all too easy to take for granted. Perhaps Vinsel, Russell and their colleagues will seek to be digital Mike Rowes – highlighting those ‘dirty jobs’ that we walk past without a second thought.
For those like me that aren’t in Hoboken and want to follow the conversation, keep watching Russell and Vinsel. They have been and should continue to note useful work in this area.