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244 pages, Kindle Edition
First published September 8, 2020
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)
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)
- [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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
-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)
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)
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.
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.”
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.
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.