New technologies and their inventors are often celebrated as society’s heroes. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Larry Page: These are all contemporary “innovators” whose “visionary ideas” and “creative leaps” led to “disruptive realities”—that is, if one buys the rhetoric of certain books and novelty-oriented publications.
But those who’ve questioned whether technology really is society’s salve aren’t alone. Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology, wrote a dissertation on innovation and regulation in the early days of the automobile. But lately, he finds that the word “innovation” is overused to the point of meaninglessness—and worse, that it can obfuscate the bleak realities of the status quo. “In a culture where we forget about things like crumbling infrastructure and wage inequality, those narratives about technological change can be really dangerous,” Vinsel says.
How so? “Look no further than the income disparities and gender inequalities in Silicon Valley, which is often seen as a hub or cathedral of innovation,” says Andy Russell, also a historian of technology at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Vinsel and Russell believe in the power of an alternative discourse about work and technology, and they’re helping it take shape with a three-day conference that began last Thursday. Called “The Maintainers” (a play on the title of Walter Isaacson’s recent best-seller), the event assembles historians, social scientists, artists, activists, and engineers to discuss how the human-built world is maintained and sustained—so often by unnamed, unseen, and underpaid labor.