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The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most

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For forty years, innovation has been the hottest buzzword in business. But what if the benefits of innovation have been exaggerated, and our obsession with the new has distracted us from the work that matters most?

It's hard to avoid innovation these days. Nearly every product gets marketed as being disruptive, whether it's a new technology or a new toothbrush. But in this manifesto on the state of American work, historians of technology Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell argue that our focus on shiny new things has made us poorer, less safe, and--ironically--less innovative.

Drawing on years of original research and reporting, Russell and Vinsel show how our fixation on innovation has harmed every corner of the economy. Corporations have spent millions hiring chief innovation officers while their core businesses tanked. Computer science programs have focused on programming and development even though the overwhelming majority of jobs are in IT and maintenance. Suburban sprawl has saddled cities with expensive infrastructure and piles of deferred maintenance that they can't afford to fix. And sometimes, innovation even kills--like in 2018, when a Miami bridge hailed for its innovative design collapsed onto a highway and killed six people.

Vinsel and Russell tell the at-times humorous, at-times alarming story of how we devalued the work that keeps our world going--and in so doing, wrecked our economy, left our public infrastructure derelict, and lined the pockets of consultants who combine the ego of Silicon Valley with the worst of Wall Street's greed. They offer a compelling plan for how we can shift our focus in resources away from the pursuit of growth at all costs, and back toward the people and technologies underpinning so much of modern life.

For anyone concerned by the crumbling state of our roads, bridges, and airports, and the direction our economy is headed, The Innovator's Delusion is a deeply necessary re-evaluation of a trend we can still disrupt.

244 pages, Kindle Edition

First published September 8, 2020

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About the author

Lee Vinsel

4 books11 followers
Lee Vinsel is a professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 55 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,472 reviews220 followers
May 16, 2021
Lee Vinsel is a pro-follow on twitter, and his essays Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains and You’re Doing It Wrong: Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype are some of the best STS scholarship I've read in ages: insightful, deeply sourced, provocative, funny, and sharp enough to cut. The Innovation Delusion is a mistitled collection of anecdotes that doesn't quite rise to meet the needs of a research program.

Eroded century old C-hook. Failure of a similar hook caused the destructive 2019 Camp Fire. Source

A better title for this book is The Maintenance Correction. Vinsel and Russell are two of the organizers behind The Maintainers mailing list, an interdisciplinary conversation on the practice of maintenance. This book is built on three pillars. First, American society is valorizes innovation-speak, a specific brand of public relations used by cool Silicon Valley information technology firms, which is distinct from "real innovation". Second, there is a massive and painful structural deficit in maintenance across this country, at scales from regional electrical grids to water systems and bridges to houses to our own teeth and joints. And third, maintenance and care workers, including IT helpdesks, nurses, and people who take out the trash both on our streets and on our social media networks, are underpaid and disrespected. It's hard to argue with these pillars individually, but they don't quite come together as a thesis.

The narrative wanders through little vignettes. Here's the famous IDEO lab, home of expensive design thinking consultants, which can't point to how design thinking makes anything better. Here's the Strong Town network, founded by a libertarian town planner helping municipalities get their infrastructure commitments under control. Here are tech start ups attaching sensors to complex machines to figure out when a pump goes out of true, preventing a $250k repair job. Here are people all across America without the time or money to fix little problems around the home or on the body, who will eventually face expensive and potentially fatal situations because of it.

Some of the book is quite alarming. While I'm sure most people are familiar with the jokes of Trump's Infrastructure Week and the much less funny D- grade for US infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the financial cost of deferred maintenance for civic water, power, and road systems is frighteningly high, an off-books expense that would sink local budgets if properly accounted for. Similarly, while functional companies recognize that maintaining capital systems saves money, a culture of quarterly profits and rapid turnover can mean that undone maintenance is someone else's problem, at least until your stuff breaks and starts killing people (hello PG&E, hello ERCOT). Short-termism and a looter's attitude towards capital is at the heart of what this book cares about, and is hardly mentioned, which seems a major oversight.

As a scholarly book and one summarizing several years of The Maintainers conference and conversations, I would have liked some thoughts on best practices for doing research on maintenance, on making this invisible labor visible. So much of what the authors deem as great maintenance is bound up in the local and specific, noting the sound of a machine as it goes out of balance, or the signs that a roof is leaking before the joists rot away. Following workers ethnographically and technological systems in detail is surprisingly hard. Perhaps methods are not worth fetishizing, but a book is a moment for a research movement to make a stand, to say "this is the state of our art", and The Innovation Delusion doesn't do that. Meanwhile certain innovation-centric academic departments I may have formerly been affiliated with are throwing out almost-identical-but-cleverly-renamed research programs every year.

And finally, there is a lot of room to dismantle innovation-speak. Some areas which I know about just from reading tech news, and which are not mentioned in the book follow. We can laugh at Juicero, Theranos, and WeWork, but I have no idea how salad chain Sweetgreen is pivoting to being a tech company. Unicorn tech darlings like Uber and AirBNB are successful because they shift the cost of maintenance off their books and onto their users. Driving for Uber may seem profitable, until you account for all the wear you're putting on your car. Similarly, renting out a spare room on AirBNB regularly means being a hotel maid and washing a lot more sheets. Avoiding maintenance costs is core to how these tech companies make money; well, that and massively breaking local laws. On the other side of the tech equation, cloud services like AWS allow companies to avoid the tricky matter of running, maintaining, and upgrading their own datacenters by renting computing resources from Amazon, Google, or Microsoft. I'm not experienced enough to know when Cloud vs on-prem makes sense, but having worked as a software developer for two years now, if you're not actively refactoring and paying down your technical debt, you're accruing interest on something which will come back to hurt you.

At the end of the day, The Innovation Delusion is okay, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
Profile Image for Rick Wilson.
614 reviews220 followers
July 30, 2021
Strong condemnation of those who pay lip service to innovation and creation at the expense of actually building something. And the author advocates that maintenance and upkeep are just as important, if not more so, than the novel creation of technology
11 reviews4 followers
February 18, 2021
A mature analysis of society’s preoccupation with innovation-speak. The belief in the panacea of growth has contributed to a culture of disposability and forced obsolescence. To counter this mindset, the authors contend that we need to prioritize maintenance - personal, technological, infrastructural. The most engaging idea in the book is that maintenance can be a unifying force in contemporary society; blue collar labourers, farmers, IT specialists, and health professionals can all appreciate and indeed rally around the notion that care is vital to thriving in the 21st century.
Profile Image for عبدالله عطيه.
65 reviews1 follower
October 28, 2020
The actual issues that this book discusses are:
-The Growth mentality is bad
-Maintenance is very much underrated.

I find that the attack is not an innovation itself as much as on the capitalist growth mentality at all costs.
Profile Image for Sharad Pandian.
410 reviews130 followers
October 16, 2020
A book that asks right at the beginning: "Do you ever get the feeling that everyone around you worships the wrong gods? That, through fluke or oversight, our society’s charlatans have been cast as its heroes, and the real heroes have been forgotten?" (6) is exactly the kind of thing a technogrouch like me is all for. Here's a quick summary:

I. Against innovation-talk

Initially, they make a distinction between innovation and innovation-talk, stressing that it’s the vacuous latter they’re against:

There is actual innovation, the profitable combination of new or existing knowledge, resources, and/or technologies… But genuine innovation is quite distinct from innovation-speak, a breathless dialect of word salad that trumpets the importance of innovation while turning that term into an overused buzzword. (10)

Because innovation is such a flexible term—and because its success is followed by profit—its promoters have wrapped the concept in promises about its future impact. “The Segway will change the world!” “We’re entering the era of the paperless office!” “The telegraph/airplane/Internet will usher in a new era of world peace!” And so on. We call this hype innovation-speak. Unlike actual innovation, which is tangible, measurable, and much less common, innovation-speak is a sales pitch about a future that doesn’t yet exist. (11)

Innovation-speak is fundamentally dishonest. While it is often cast in terms of optimism, talking of opportunity and creativity and a boundless future, it is in fact the rhetoric of fear. It plays on our worry that we will be left behind: Our nation will not be able to compete in the global economy; our businesses will be disrupted; our children will fail to find good jobs because they don’t know how to code. Andy Grove, the founder of Intel, made this feeling explicit in the title of his 1996 book Only the Paranoid Survive. Innovation-speak is a dialect of perpetual worry. (11)

They point to how there’s now a booming industry for who can produce innovation-babble:

As innovation became a priority, it created demand for what the historian Matt Wisnioski calls innovation experts—a new breed of individuals, often consultants, who offered up visions and plans for how to make individuals, organizations, even cities, regions, and entire nations more innovative. And by “offered up,” we mean sold: You could make good money if you came with an enticing theory of innovation. (30)

Drawing from their experience teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology, they point to how senior engineering students are now being trained to “how to bullshit and sell themselves as something they were not” about how innovative their competent but non-innovative works were (108).

Using many case-studies and the work of others (credited), they argue that there’s a number of problems with such an approach to innovation:

- [the] young, upstart firms that “disrupted” the disk-drive industry in the 1980s. But the firms that were still around in 2014 were the companies that “led the market in the nineteen-eighties,” Jill Lepore pointed out in The New Yorker. “In the longer term,” she concludes, “victory in the disk-drive industry appears to have gone to the manufacturers that were good at incremental improvements, whether or not they were the first to market the disruptive new format.” (31)

- there is zero evidence that doing so has led to more new products or business models or upended existing technologies or industries. Disruption is not something you can work toward or plan… Actual innovation proceeds through small steps, not grand strategy. (31)

- [Drawing from Stephen Turner:] nobody on this planet knows for certain how to make more innovation in general, and if someone claims to, he or she probably has something to sell you. (32)

-Wittgenstein’s point is that we often hanker for universalities in cases where the complex world evades such easy summary. If we consider the broad panoply of things we call innovations—new things entering the world—we will quickly see there is no common pattern for how they come into being and spread through society. (35)

we should resist the notion that anyone on this planet knows how to increase the rate and quality of innovation in general, and we should all be skeptical of anyone who makes such claims. The late economist Nathan Rosenberg and others who have written deep studies of innovation have tended to emphasize incremental changes and long processes of continual improvement. Indeed, most innovation and most of the changes that have contributed to the massive transformations of the last three hundred years are of this sort. The incrementalist vision suggests that the best advice one can give about innovation is this: Take care, pay attention, and do your job. It’s not the kind of message that will attract multimillion-dollar endowments to universities or enable your dear authors to open up a consultancy and get filthy rich. But we believe it’s a more honest picture of how technological change actually works. (36)

There is no single set of capabilities or skills that links together the inventor Thomas Edison; the creator of nylon, Wallace Carothers; and entrepreneurs like Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington. Some innovations come from gregarious extroverts who see opportunities in every social situation; others from shy autistics who would rather push pins under their fingernails than hang out at a party... Most innovations are incremental and come from individuals who are subject matter experts and who apply themselves to improving the domain they know so well. There is no shortcut to decades of training and hard work. (107)

II. Taking Maintenance Seriously

- However, they then argue that even obsessively focusing on innovation alone, as though it were an intrinsic good rather than a means to an end is dangerous (12).

- Drawing on American history, they point out that it was the sense of failure after the post-war boom led to the shift from “progress” to “innovation”:

In the midst of all of this upheaval, use of the word “progress” dropped significantly, and the notion of “innovation” became a kind of substitute, one that offered the ideal of change without the agony of mandating reforms in the structure of American society. As the historian Jill Lepore puts it, “Replacing ‘progress’ with ‘innovation’ skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.” (26-27)

- The way they want to expand the conversation is to rehabilitate the value of maintenance and care:

Since technology is not just innovation, and the tools that we use daily consist mostly of old things, then a logical next step is to think about not only what technology is but also when it is. A piece of technology passes through three basic phases: innovation, maintenance, and decay... When humans interact with technology, they generally do not create it; rather, they use and maintain it. (41-42)

[the central paradox of maintenance:] It is, simultaneously, both absolutely necessary and usually neglected. This is a cruel irony, since maintenance is the key to ensuring that the benefits of technology are felt in their full depth and breadth... Maintenance preserves order. It is the constant war against entropy—the second law of thermodynamics, which states that, over time and without intervention, every system will decline into disorder and randomness. Although you wouldn’t know it from histories that fixate on innovation and inventors, much of human history is, in fact, stories of stability: of how societies coordinate labor to maintain the large-scale public systems we’ve relied on since ancient times. (38)

- While decay is mentioned: “When technologies are harmful, we should stop maintaining them and instead help them die—put coal-burning power plants in hospice, give palliative care to coal mining” (226), the emphasis in the book is on maintenance.

-To better appreciate maintenance, they wish to expand what’s counted as “tech”/”technology” from the current reference to digital gadgets:

To find a healthier approach to technology, let’s start by considering a simple definition: Technology includes all the things humans use to help them reach their goals. These things include tools (including ordinary objects like cutlery), buildings, cloth, streets and sidewalks, and the pipes, pumps, and wires that we use to transport water, waste, energy, and information. The late novelist Ursula K. Le Guin had an even simpler definition: “Technology is how a society copes with physical reality.” In her “Rant about ‘Technology,’ ” she noted that “we have been so desensitized by a hundred and fifty years of ceaselessly expanding technical prowess that we think nothing less complex and showy than a computer or a jet bomber deserves to be called ‘technology’ at all.” (41)

- New concepts are introduced
• deferred maintenance and preventive maintenance (50)
• fast disasters and slow disasters (62-63)

- Reasons for why maintenance budgets are slashed include cost cutting when economic growth slowed (65) as well as depopulation of many areas eroding the tax base (77).

-They point to the issue of “occupational prestige” (103) - how maintenance roles “often fall at the bottom of status hierarchies,” for eg: in the modern corporation “Nearly all maintainers experience condescension on the job, whether it takes the form of being ignored, talked down to, or taken advantage of. In many organizations, for instance, janitors and maintenance workers are required to wear uniforms—often one-piece coveralls—that mark them out as maintainers” (102). This is stark in caste societies, like how Dalits “do work known as manual scavenging, which involves cleaning open-air toilets and sewers by hand” (103). They also point to how care work, typically feminized and undertaken by women, is also devalued and so connect their work to work on care by people like Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Virginia Held (43).

III. The Maintenance mindset

Against “The innovation delusion” (157-158), they put forward the maintenance mindset:

To understand the maintenance mindset, you should start with a question: What is good and worth preserving? This is the fundamental point of departure from the language of innovation, which asks you to worry about what you need to change, or what will be disrupted—it is a language of fear. Instead, we’re asking you to adopt a new habit when you walk around, or think about your work, your community, and your personal life: Ask yourself, What is good here? And how can I maintain that goodness? How can I preserve and extend extend that which is valuable? (142)

…we have distilled three general principles of the maintenance mindset.

• First, there is the principle that maintenance sustains success. Maintenance consists of activities that, when done correctly, ensure longevity and sustainability for a company, a city, or a family home. To put the point a different way, no innovation can persist without maintenance.

• Second, there is the principle that maintenance depends on culture and management. Good maintenance is possible only with good planning that takes an organization’s preexisting culture and values into account.

• The third principle is that maintenance requires constant care. The best maintainers take a nurturing and supportive approach to their work. They are often detail oriented, creative, and, more than anything else, dedicated to their craft. (142)

They advocate a “Fix It First” national infrastructure policy (166), but are aware that there are many difficult questions, and that these can only be discovered and answered cautiously, through careful attention “to small details in their communities” (164). Some of these complications include:

-The question of how to pay—and who should pay—for deferred maintenance is an unanswered question of justice in our country. (161)

-A big reason the true cost of infrastructure and the maintenance thereof is not visible is a trick of accounting. Municipalities are not required to count infrastructure as liabilities, even though they are on the hook for taking care of them in perpetuity. (163)

-Making this accounting shift would be painful, pushing the books of most American cities massively into the red, but it would provide a more realistic picture of where we are and would allow us to grapple with reality, even if only on a triage basis. (163)

-one thing, infrastructure is highly varied and it may be difficult to come up with standard measurements that cover all of it. For example, we might have to choose between maintaining roads, dams, and schools. How do we meaningfully compare their contributions to our lives and the state of their degradation? (164)

- it’s very difficult, sometimes impossible, to know if a new piece of infrastructure is worth the downstream cost. (165)

IV. Who’s in the movement?

All this talk isn’t just about possible changes – they talk about “repair cafés, fix-it clinics” (200) that have already cropped up to try to allow people to repair things on their own.
A theme from the beginning is how people in America across the spectrum contribute to the movement, since ultimately “partisan politics and identities fall to the wayside when people give themselves and one another some space to talk about maintenance and repair” (222).

This perhaps is where some gentle criticism should be levied – while the authors make a difference between innovation and innovation-talk, there’s no attempt to unentangle maintenance and maintenance-talk, so they just quote people like Camille Acey saying vapid-sounding stuff like: “One thing I really believe in is customers as partners. We rely on them as much as they rely on us” (190). A good excuse is that the opposition is so ubiquitous that even the modest goal of showing alternate approaches is valuable. This is true, but the next step is presumably trying to evaluate what kind of maintenance/talk is valuable and what isn’t.

Regardless, this is a fine mission:

To us, all of this suggests that there may be a gap in popular discourse about the things we own and use. On one side is a kind of consumerism that celebrates the rapid consumption of disposable things. On the other are traditions that criticize “materialism” and assert that objects are not the answer to our soul’s desires. What’s missing is a kind of positive materialism that recognizes the deep pleasure and meaning that can accompany physical realities. (210)
Profile Image for Andrew Carr.
471 reviews90 followers
July 28, 2021
I really liked this book. It's a two-fold critique that everyone will be able to identify with, that applies widely across society, rather than just a question of technology.

First, Vinsel & Russell mount a compelling attack on 'innovation speak'. Innovation is good they stress, but 'innovation speak' is a crude attempt to achieve it via shortcuts. By hiring the right 'innovation officer', running endless 'creativity' sessions, and seeking 'disruption' everywhere. As the authors rightly argue, there's no clear evidence this largely aesthetic approach actually works. Indeed, it often seems to get in the way of what we know can enable innovation - in-depth expertise and the time and space to work through real problems.

Second and perhaps more importantly, Vinsel and Russell argue for the importance of maintenance. The work of preserving and sustaining, and the workers who do this critical yet radically undervalued work. The book offers a rather fresh way of talking about and understanding our society's adulation of 'inventors' such as Elon Musk, while so many of his workers are one missed paycheck from disaster. A world where politicians line up to announce new developments with vast government grant schemes made available to build, but no funding is available for keeping the roads safe for driving or the sewage from seeping into your drinking water.

This second theme, the value of maintenance seems one whose emergence surprised the authors. They put out a few blog posts, that turned into a conference and now five years later find themselves in a large network of people who have connected to their initial message and brought their own contribution and spin on it. It's a theme that resonates widely. Indeed, while reading this I was also reading a book on Australian political thought in the 1940s-1960s. Both books offer a glimpse of a lost language, of talking about what we need to preserve, of doing our duty, and honoring those who do theirs.

That may seem a conservative message, but modern conservatism despite its penchant for championing the 'battlers', has abandoned much of this field, endorsing the tax cuts that make maintenance affordable and reducing the conditions of the workers who do it. Yet nor is this message, despite its anti-poverty/working class concerns, one the left clearly get either. In many cases government regulations and the complex bureaucratic structures are direct impediments for trying to make things better. The system rewards only certain kinds of work, and keeping things going often isn't valued.

This is a stimulating and compelling read. It breaks some of the tired lines of debate and argument about how society actually functions, and what is needed to keep it ticking over. It's inspiring in terms of encouraging a fresh way of addressing our problems, as well as terrifying in highlighting all of the ways we are failing each other collectively. And to compound our ills, as the worse the world gets the more we seem to be looking to innovation speak as a short cut for our problems, when it's the harder work of maintenance we need to be paying attention to.
166 reviews
April 18, 2021
There's something more important than innovation, and in this book the authors take on the innovation Goliath, by proposing that maintenance is the key to a long and happy life for people, infrastructure and machinery. While some reviewers may say this makes for a boring book, others heartily agree with the authors. Our society has become too enamored with the remove and replace culture, when simple maintenance tasks would prevent or resolve problems quickly, in a more cost effective manner.

An excellent example of taking innovation to the extreme is Hewlett Packard and its line of 2021 HP printers. In 2020, it was possible for anyone owning an HP printer (in or out of warranty) to call Tech Support and speak to a living human being to resolve an issue with a product. Not so in 2021. The customer whose printer is out of warranty is routed through a maze of automated" help" that eventually ends in a phone call being cut off, or an online search endlessly looped through the website until the customer quits in frustration, or as HP wants - purchases a new printer from them. But why would you buy a printer from a company that refuses to provide basic customer service?

As for the 2021 line of printers, a quick read of the 1-star reviews reveals that formerly loyal HP customers are cutting ties with the company because these innovative products are more difficult to install, do not include any manual and are unreliable after only a few weeks.

For something like a printer, HP really should not strive to "innovate." Innovation in this case is not about making the machine function better, it is about making it cheaper. If they had a good product, why not keep making it so that when it finally needs to be replaced the customer can just buy another one - same model. As time has passed, customers would be willing to pay a higher price for the new unit.

This book brings to light an important issue about technology and the authors present it well.
22 reviews5 followers
March 16, 2023
This book makes an important and compelling argument: that our obsession for new and "innovative" technologies makes us neglect to consider the base of maintenance upon which everything is built and depends. I put "innovation" in quotes because the most useful idea I am taking from the book is the distinction they draw between what they call "innovation-speak" – the jargon of Silicon Valley that idolizes disruption, speed and novelty – and actual innovation – the introduction of new ideas and systems to society. Interestingly, they note that the kinds of innovations we frequently discuss today tend to be innovations around screen-based convenience or entertainment; on the whole, however, innovation has slowed down if you think about the larger innovations of the past century: electricity, airplane travel, freeways, HVAC systems, etc.

I would rate this book 3.5 stars if I could. The message is excellent and worth hearing. That message, however, doesn't require a full book. Much of the book is acknowledging the work of many of the maintainers that help keep things running, and I think that is important to them but isn't necessarily enriching of the authors' argument. I ended up getting bogged down in the middle chapters of the book, and finished it mostly out of a sense of principle.

On the whole, however, the message is worth it. I might recommend reading just the first chapter, which arguably holds half the value of the whole book.
Profile Image for Jolynn.
251 reviews9 followers
May 10, 2021
Great read on the degree to which innovation is over-sold and the prevalence of innovation-speak when compared to the value and importance of maintenance. From maintenance of ourselves and our households, to the infrastructure of society (sewers, water, dams, roads, trains, subways and bridges), to state and federal government investment choices, the authors discuss the imperative of maintenance and the maintenance mindset, connecting these ideas to environmental sustainability, equality, and social justice. They also explore the ways our society can improve in the area of valuing the people who maintain our world - through respect, dignity, pay and benefits - and most of all, comprehension of the essential nature and crucial role played by people in these roles.
Profile Image for Trevor Owens.
Author 3 books43 followers
February 7, 2021
Great read! Very accessible exploration of how notions of progress in society morphed into notions of innovation in technology and the role that “innovation speak” plays in pushing unsustainable ideas about growth at the cost of investing in developing and planning for more maintainable and sustainable infrastructure and societies.
Profile Image for Jess.
333 reviews14 followers
January 22, 2022
Damn, this book feels relevant with the infrastructure bill and the lack of social welfare. We think MORE is better and stop maintaining what we have!!! This should be read by everyone.

I’ve already gone off about it in one of my classes and we’re only one week into the semester.. oy vey
Profile Image for Mirek Jasinski.
423 reviews13 followers
November 6, 2020
While I agree with most of the ideas presented in the book, I would stress that we need disruptive innovation as well. It's like with yin & yang - we need to balance the innovation with maintenance (of the status quo!).
Profile Image for Penny Ramirez.
1,717 reviews26 followers
October 14, 2021
Eye-opening. Both somewhat disheartening and hopeful. We've become such a throwaway culture, and such disdain is heaped upon those who choose to repair rather than replace or upgrade.

It's even more depressing to consider the burdens we're adding to future generations by not maintaining the infrastructure we so desperately require.
Profile Image for Jennifer Iacabucci.
28 reviews2 followers
October 1, 2020
Sick of hearing about innovation, pressure to be new/flashy/the latest trend? Wish you knew someone that could fix your damn washing machine - what happened to those skill sets? This book is for you. The appreciation and need for maintainers is something that 100% needs more attention. This book was refreshing, approachable, and necessary in today's society. Highly recommend.

Edit - I listened to this book on audible - narrator Rob Shapiro. 5 stars for the narration as well
Profile Image for Ben Pratt.
12 reviews4 followers
December 4, 2020
This book was a disappointment. The authors demonstrate a lack of understanding about innovation and economics, frequently resort to hyperbole and straw man arguments, and have an annoying habit of contradicting themselves. It seemed like this book was more a platform for them to preen their political views and top down societal solutions than to provide insight into the tensions between innovation and maintenance.

For example: they claim that - despite the title - their problem is not actually with innovation, but with ‘innovation-speak’, which is “fundamentally dishonest” - but then they go on to say that “smidges of innovation-speak” are to be tolerated “where it’s appropriate.” The reader is left to wonder just who gets to decide when it is appropriate to say something that is “fundamentally dishonest.” They mention that “the ideology of change for its own sake is dangerous in the wrong hands.” (Are there ‘right’ hands for such a ridiculous concept? Would anyone sign up for investing in an ideology of change for its own sake?) That’s just the introduction. The whole book is full of these non-sequiters.

In their railing against the newspeak buzzwords of innovation that apparently originate in Silicon Valley, they commit the very same sins, and quite disrespectfully, with the ideas and works of Clayton Christiansen, Andrew Grove, and others. They casually throw about terms and concepts from these sources, devoid of their original meaning and context - turning them into buzzwords that they use to build straw man arguments to glibly knock down. (In citing the title of Grove’s “Only the Paranoid Survive” to support their argument against innovation-speak, they clearly demonstrate a lack of connection to the ideas in that text and their own claims in the same paragraph regarding the validity of Schumpeter’s creative destruction.)

To innovate is to find new and better ways - to think, act, produce, create, work, etc. An innovation may or may not be measurable, it may or may not be profitable; it can be profitable to some and not to others. Value is subjective, and improvements are not always traceable directly to a P&L (if there even is one - such as the case of non-profits). Innovations run the spectrum from incremental to transformational.

I think the authors have much to contribute in their ideas and perspectives about the importance and value of maintenance and reliability. But the signal gets lost in noise of their obfuscated whining against the snake oil salesmen and tech hypesters (who have always been with us and always will be), along with the misguided characterizations of what is or isn’t innovation. We need both innovation and maintenance. It’s an AND not an OR.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Doc Martin.
29 reviews2 followers
October 21, 2020
Interesting, but in parts long winded. Totally agree with the authors’ point around being able to distinguish actual innovation and from the false promises of innovation-speak.

Applaud their refocus from just innovation to the importance of maintenance, and how to preserve and extend that which is valuable.

I could certainly benefit from remembering their general principles of the maintenance mindset rather than moving towards the next shine new thing!

1. maintenance sustains success.
2. Maintenance depends on culture and management
3. Maintenance requires constant care.

Time to celebrate the maintainers of the world.

‘ These workers don’t give TEDTalks, they don’t have philanthropic foundations, and they don’t play volleyball or ping-pong at a lush corporate campus. But when they are successful, their work helps to preserve the appearance of software, social media platforms, and digital infrastructure as smooth, impersonal, and automated. Their work, ironically supports the tenuous credibility of pundits who claim that automation will eliminate jobs.’
Profile Image for Fraser Kinnear.
774 reviews37 followers
March 28, 2021
An enormous market of organizations and individuals yearn to be innovators, and will pay big bucks to become one. Innovation experts benefit from a deep-seated human frailty, which the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called “the craving for generality”. General statements are crucial for living, of course, you aren’t going to last long if you can’t learn principles like “fire burns” or “that red berry is poisonous and will kill you dead.” But Wittgenstein’s point is that we often hanker for universalities in cases where the complex world evades such easy summary. If we consider the raw panoply of things we call innovations, new things entering the world, we will quickly see there is no common pattern for how they come into being and spread through society.

Wittgenstein, in the passage these authors are citing from his Blue Book, is actually making a broad point about the limits of the reductive reasoning that science is based on:
Our craving for generality has [as one] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.”

However, reductive thinking can plague our epistemology in areas beyond science. This book argues that we also think too reductively about world trends, and lionize innovation and innovators in a sort of commercial spin on the Great Man Theory of history.
These celebrations of inventors often overlooked the fact that technologies came from many heads and hands, rather than a single mastermind. Eli Whitney was lauded for inventing the cotton gin, for instance, even though the basic technology had existed for hundreds of years in other parts of the world. But observers preferred stories of individual genius to more complex reality, a preference that continues to this day. The ordinary people who kept the lights on, while the great men plugged away, have been written out of technology’s hagiographies.

So, part of this book’s goal is to deflate this way of thinking. Fortunately, this only appears to be one of the authors’ goals.

The authors mostly avoided the easy polemic points of tearing down our market’s heroes and villains, and instead mostly focused on positive ideas for what we should change. A good example is recommending we change GASB standards so municipalities must treat infrastructure as a liability, rather than an asset, and better account for the perpetual maintenance costs that most of them neglect today.

And I hadn’t really appreciated this facet of the PG&E story:
In April 2019, a federal judge in San Francisco criticized one of California’s power providers, PG&E, for paying out $4.5 billion in dividends to shareholders while neglecting routine maintenance, such as trimming trees that might pose a risk to power lines… 8 people were killed in a 2010 PG&E pipeline explosion, and PG&E equipment was the likely cause of both the 2017 fires in the Bay Area’s wine country, and the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most costly wildfire in California’s history, that killed at least 85 people, destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, and led to $16.5 billion in damages.

And a useful rule of thumb that I might one day find useful at work: the 6:1 preventative maintenance principle. It was first developed at Alumax in the 1970’s, and states that for every six preventative maintenance measures, plan to have 1 corrective maintenance measure. In dollars, the authors suggest that for every $1 spent on maintenance, plan for $0.84.

And two good book recommendations… Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, which I might now read, in spite of the bad taste he left in my mouth earlier. And this is yet another book that cites The Rise And Fall of American Growth, which I suppose is enough of a trend for me to finally get to. I wonder if book citations are tracked the same way paper citations are…

Finally, a few random facts I found interesting:
- The average house built in 1950 was 983 square feet. As of 2014, it was 2,657!
- One in eleven Americans pay for self-storage!
- Awesome website reference, ifixit.com, of which 1 in 5 Californians have apparently visited
- Apple air pods are not recyclable because of how they are glued together
Profile Image for Cameron Norman.
47 reviews20 followers
October 16, 2021
An Important Book With Many Missed Opportunities

This book was all over the place. This is such an important topic and yet the treatment of it just left me dismayed and uninformed. This is based on the original Aeon article (which is a great read) and it either should have been left at that or completely rethought.

The authors are clearly passionate about the topic, but their passion and the community that they have created through their Maintainers network has blinded them to the need to articulate the benefits to those not in that fold (at least as it’s expressed in the book). This is a book that celebrates maintainers, yet also manages to lump in a whole lot of other groups who are maintainers in some way, but only loosely connected. Home repair and nursing might have some similarities in the abstract, but their effort to link any kind of maintain-like work together falls flat.

The book is well-written in passages (a series of two-three paragraph sections), but terribly disjointed as a whole. The authors jump all over the place connecting ideas that are loosely affiliated together and putting them under a single heading.

The very beginning of the book — the first two chapters — and the last ones are the best and most coherent.

The authors take aim at innovation-speak and a variety of related topics to innovation and creativity (e.g., Design Thinking). While these areas are worthy of critique, there is a risk that we throw all of it out without acknowledging some benefits. For example, maintaining is a creative act and the same joys that some get from maintaining something and finding solutions to problems by keeping something (or putting something) intact might be the same as someone who creates something from scratch. This joy in creation could be a great place for the authors to bring things together, but they passed.

Another missed opportunity was a chance to speak more fully to the issue of waste created by things designed to be thrown away. For example, the lack of ability to replace old batteries or swap out defective parts to keep the whole on things like phones and tablets. There was little discussion of this.

The authors set up what I see as a (mostly) false distinction between the world of innovation and the maintainers. The latter group is portrayed as a community of spirited individuals who enjoy working with their hands and making the world a better place while innovators are, for the most part, filled with vacuous language and damaging the planet. While this might sound like an exaggeration, sadly it’s not. It’s possible to profile and celebrate the maintainer community without having to make it ‘better’ than what’s done in innovation.

The last point I want to make is that the idea of maintenance as a concept isn’t really introduced or defined. It’s a bit strange considering the focus of the book.

The title of this book might speak to some real issues (there is a lot of delusional innovation-speak), but this book doesn’t address them. It also doesn’t really give much cohesive strength to the notion of the need to maintain things, either. It’s an important topic that is not given the organized arguments it deserves in this book.
Profile Image for Howard.
265 reviews18 followers
March 9, 2022
Originally posted at myreadinglife.com.

I have often wondered why we have such a hierarchy of jobs. Why are service and maintenance jobs considered so "low"? After all, someone has to do that work for our civilization to keep working. It takes a different set of skills and experience but there is nothing inherently more valuable to our society about doctors and lawyers than mechanics, nurses, and janitorial staff. We need them all.

Recently I went looking for a book on this subject. I tried searching for the term "maintenance". Unfortunately most of the results were about how to do it. I had to give up. But then I started reading a book on my list and discovered that unlike its title, it is really about maintenance and those who do it. That book is The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell.

The authors are fed up with what they call "innovation-speak". This is newness for its own sake and comes with all the cliches. We definitely need real innovation and technology. And we are surrounded by it – indoor plumbing, public transportation, electricity, etc. But our focus these days is on digital innovation to the exclusion of the physical technology that requires ongoing maintenance, as everything does.

This book is a primer on how our almost exclusive focus on building new stuff has led to us neglecting the maintenance of our existing technology. You hear this in the cries about our decaying infrastructure and the deep backlog of deferred maintenance. Unfortunately, the answers given in public are more about enhancing what is there or building new. We need to address how we will maintain what we have.

The authors do a thorough job of outlining how we got in this state and how it is affecting all of us while often devastating local communities. But the book is short on solutions, and that is on purpose. This book is a call to arms to pay attention to the situation outlined, to start a conversation that will lead to action. It is well-written and inspiring. And if you have any interest, in addition to reading the book you can follow what the authors are doing at www.themaintainers.org.
November 12, 2022
This was a recommendation from a podcast interviewee who wants people to see that we can't just tout that studying STEM results in "growth" and "innovation" and then expect everything to be better. This book showed me that "innovation speak" and a "growth mindset" can cause a lot of harm, particularly social and environmental. It's a very different take on the idea of innovation that I've never heard before. It felt quite fresh to read people saying, "Wait, stop! Stop trying to come up with new "better" things, and focus on maintaining what we have." This point also agreed with the conclusions of 'Bullshit Jobs' that I just read: that the members of society who work in care and maintenance are the people doing the most necessary jobs, and yet they're often the least paid and respected. I expected the book to be about digital technologies etc. but it was actually often about things like public infrastructure. This made me rethink what "technologies" I actually couldn't live without (i.e. the cement that holds my home up, and the trains that get me around, not the smartphone I have). I'm definitely going to make more effort now to fix and maintain the things I have, and I feel really inspired by the tool-sharing and community fixing initiatives that they talked about. It's also made me reconsider how I sometimes justify the worth of studying arts and humanities (i.e. creative innovation) and see beyond hyper-capitalist innovation speak. I loved the part where they talked about how much tech companies are benefiting financially from claiming that there is a STEM labour shortage, because the more people who pursue STEM, the more likely there is to be a STEM labour surplus and therefore the less these companies can justify paying their staff. One part I wasn't such a fan of was when they used fatphobic ideas to warn against "growth", but they did then save it by discussing how weight is not an indicator of health etc.
Profile Image for Anna Hawes.
350 reviews
May 22, 2021
I really liked the ideas of this book but found the execution a little lacking. The authors run a research network and I am sure they have excellent presentations and articles that do their arguments more justice. There were a lot of anecdotes strung together with meta-writing ('in this chapter we will see...') and I found myself skimming when things felt too repetitive. Still it's a quick book and, again, the ideas inside are strong.

I enjoyed Isaacson's The Innovators, I was an Innovation fellow in college, and I live in Silicon Valley (all things the authors dislike) so I was curious to see how I would feel about this book. I fully agree with them that innovation-speak is annoying ('disrupting' everything, 'move fast and break things'). I think they go a little too far in blaming everything on an obsession with innovation. (Politicians wanting to build new roads rather than repair old ones is due to misaligned incentives not drinking the innovation Kool-Aid.) However, whether or not you lay the blame on an 'innovation delusion', the societal problems they lay out are real and pressing. We do need to consider the upkeep costs and not just upfront costs on everything from a household level (new vs used car) to a local level (roads) to a national level (military budgets). They also rightly point out the social prestige hierarchy of jobs is flawed, something we saw with the "essential workers" of the pandemic. Also included was a reminder that it is good for us and the planet to be maintaining rather than constantly consuming and trashing goods. There were lots of interesting examples and people doing good maintenance work in a wide variety of settings. I will look into their Maintainers society more because quite a few of the lessons were useful and important.
3 reviews
January 27, 2023
As the only mechanic in Western PA with an MS in History, I have always been a keen observer of our material world, usually when it is dropped off broken to my garage. When you fix people's cars, they think you can fix anything. The funny thing is that sometimes they're right. A little mechanical and electrical knowledge is all that is needed to keep from being a mouse on the wheel of our consumer culture. I drive a 14-year-old car with 230,000, have a 20-year-old front loading washer and dryer set, my father's 1986 Honda lawnmower, and countless other things I've kept in good repair rather than making big purchases, and people notice. Which is why I've repaired too many sweepers, weed trimmers, lamps, toys, and other things for my neighbors and friends than I can count. Imagine my joy, then, at coming across this delightfully irreverent look at the impact of our modern consumer culture and its assumption of the inherent good of change for it's own sake. If you're a tinkerer yourself, or you just want to understand the value structure that undergirds a world you sometimes feel alienated from, this book is a good place to start. Using down-to-earth examples, the authors show how everything from environmental problems to societal inequity have some of their roots in an assumed philosophy that is unwittingly followed without being objectively considered. Equally important, they sketch the means by which we might step off the treadmill and establish a healthier relationship to the things and technologies in our lives for the benefit of ourselves and the society we live in. An easy read that guarantees to positively change the way you look at the world.

Profile Image for Jeff Hexter.
116 reviews4 followers
May 27, 2021
I *wanted* to not like this book. I feared it would be an opinion piece about why I should avoid the new “new” thing. Or a justification for Luddite behavior.

It was neither.

From the beginning, the authors explain they are bot anti-innovation. They are anti-innovation-speak. And they go to great lengths to clarify that distinction (though I fear many will still not grasp it).

What the book does lack is a sense of historic context. 50 years ago Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, and it is not obvious to me that the authors were at all familiar with his work. They totally ignored his arguments and solutions, and they in a sense redevelop some of his arguments and solutions from his 40 year old book The Third Wave. No mention of credit. Perhaps they are in the footnotes or bibliography. I listened to the audio version so I don’t know.

Aside from that, the focus on maintenance, those who perform maintenance tasks, and the right-to-repair was presented well. They discuss the crisis of infrastructure maintenance, but their solutions are not fully fleshed out. How about bringing in some experts from finance or economics to imagine scenarios differently?

Overall, it gave me a new appreciation - and language - for discussing technology and tech innovation. And I appreciate it for that.
432 reviews3 followers
February 12, 2021
I found this book an interesting, informative, and fast read. It covers everything you'd want to know about maintaining things. As a homeowner, I have lived through the nightmare of deferred maintenance, and the joys of fixing something that broke and seemed in need of a service call. I love that there are so many youtube videos that explain how to DIY on anything.

First, you learn that a lot of "innovation" is not innovation, just activity wrapped in "innovation speak" to sound sexier. I recall the tag line "HP Invents," assumed at a time when HP seemed to stop inventing anything. Sounds like innovation-speak to me.

What I was not aware of was the cost of proactive maintenance vs. cost of deferred maintenance vs. cost of reactive repairs. I was not also aware that government funds assistance was almost exclusively focused on "new things" and not the follow-on maintenance costs. The book also covers the Right-to-Repair movement, how companies try to keep product manuals off the Internet and force you to go to their service clinics or buy a new replacement. The respect given innovators vs. maintenance is also gone through in detail.

This book will give you lots to think about. Our future will be: acquire less, fix more.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Lucy.
1,163 reviews14 followers
August 8, 2021
A worthwhile statement of much that is wrong with current capitalist society and philosophy. People in charge think that endless growth is possible and desirable. Many think that innovation is always good, even at the expense of actual thought of what is needed.
A book that should be read by anyone in government or business who has to do with the future of towns, cities, states, countries, and businesses. Maybe a detailed synopsis would be better. The book tends to be repetitive in many places, but a focus on maintenance rather that go-for-the-new would benefit everyone. As was proved by the recent collapse of a large condo in Florida. Maintenance had been skipped over and this proved fatal.
Unfortunately, for many people glitzy and new is what they want, rather than the dull but necessary maintenance of buildings, roads, railroads, buses, etc.
Chapters are:
Part One: the Problem with Innovation; Turning Anxiety into a Product; Technology after Innovation.
Part Two: Slow Disaster; Growth at All Costs; The Maintainer Caste; A Crisis of Care.
Part Three: The Maintenance Mindset; Fix It First; Supporting the Work that Matters Most; Caring for our Homes, our Stuff, and One Another; From Conversation to Action.
20 pages of notes; 10 pages of index
1 review
February 18, 2021
Short, punchy and persuasive. This reads more like a series of 'long-read' articles rather than a book but it's still well worth reading. The argument that the authors set out in the introduction is very convincing. This book is not overly technical & would still be an easy read for anybody who has no knowledge of engineering & computing.

There are a few things that could have made this better. Firstly, as other reviews have pointed out, it is a bit repetitive. Most of the really good arguments in the book are made in the first few chapters. The rest of the book hammers them home.

Secondly, a great chunk of the examples used in the book are first hand accounts, interviews, blog posts etc. It doesn't delve deep into how government funding or business models have worked (or not worked) over the past few decades. The book is a snapshot of the world as it is now, rather than something that has built up over decades. For this reason, I expect that this book will not age well. I doubt that many people will still be buying copies of The Innovation Delusion in 10 years time.

That being said, not every book needs to be a 600+ page academic tome! It's still a great read.
Profile Image for Christa Van.
1,289 reviews
December 12, 2021
This books starts with an example of a series of explosions that rocked St. John, a Canadian town. The culprit was a gas leak that had filled area buildings with vapor. The buildings were badly damaged but one remained standing with no damage. How? Well, seems like someone in that building did regular maintenance. Pouring water in the basement drain regularly and not letting it dry out, meant the gas vapor was blocked and thus there was no build up to eventually explode. With a lead up like that, you get what you expect...a book all about the real work that gets done by maintainers. Sure, everyone wants to build and invent but nothing lasts or works well without maintenance. So lets give the maintainers their due. The authors have done a lot of research and make a case for why innovation is not the key to everything. It is hard not to agree after looking around and seeing the state of our infrastructure.
Profile Image for Kat.
335 reviews12 followers
January 4, 2021
This was a very informative and timely book. Tying in tangentially with environmentalism and minimalism, "The Innovation Delusion" highlights our cultural lack of giving value or attention maintenance and our lack of respect for those who do the maintaining. Deferred costs continue to rise as corporations and politicians pursue shiny new infrastructure while individuals and local municipalities are priced out by the cost of maintaining what they already have. We have become a nation that throws away things rather than fixing them. This book talks about what is happening, how we got to this point, why the Facebook policy of "move fast and break things" is not applicable to tangible infrastructure nor is it good for reliability, and offers some ideas of what can be done about it. I highly recommend giving "The Innovation Delusion" a read.
Profile Image for Popup-ch.
736 reviews12 followers
March 6, 2022
A slightly misplaced rallying cry in favour of maintenance instead of 'innovation'. IT's a bit misplaced, though, as most of what it decies is not so much 'innovation' as thoughtless building. Examples include American cities that take federal funds for new projects, and end up with untenable maintenance bills, and when scheduled maintenance gets replaced by the kind of heroic firefighting.

One rough rule-of-thumb for (physical) maintenance is that planned maintenance should outnumber the unplanned variety by a factor of six. I think it also makes some sense for non-physical maintenance.

Another insight is that we ought to maintain our bodies for the long run, something neglected by most training gurus, who are only interested in improving metrics as fast as possible, rather than maintaining fitness for the long run.
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