Hail the maintainers

Andrew Russell & Lee Vinsel
Aeon
April 2016

_________________

When in 1959 US President Nixon joined Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, he pointed to blenders and dishwashers as emblems of American superiority. While the Soviets were busy toiling the earth for some ridiculous notion of the “collective good”, Americans were engaged in the glorious pursuit of technological advancement. In what has since been called The Kitchen Debate, capitalism and communism—two opposing worldviews—butted heads live on technicolour TV. But, as Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell argue, there was a third, more insidious ideology at play.

The great revolutions of the last two hundred years—France, Russia, India—were driven by lofty ideals of some kind of moral and social progress. The People rose up and revolted against their tyrannical leaders, seized power and demanded the end of monarchism, feudalism and colonialism. But with the dramatic failure of the Soviet project, it appears we’ve left the idea of moral progress by the wayside.

“Innovation is a dominant ideology of our era,” declare Vinsel and Russell. The quest to make new things—to develop the next “disruptive” technology—has become a cult by stealth. Silicon Valley is now our Zion, “entrepreneurs” our demigods, and Mark Zuckerberg our overlord. We’ve exchanged moral for material progress. Rather than reaching towards spiritual enlightenment, we now reach towards the Apple Store.

What makes innovation a very peculiar kind of ideology is its supposed moral agnosticism. On the question of what is “right” or “good”, technology is mute. It simply is. But Vinsel and Russell show there are decent reasons to reject this logic. First, it’s obvious that not every technological innovation is good.

Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue.

Crack, an entrepreneur’s dream! The point is that we must question an ideology that doesn’t distinguish between things that improve our lives and those that destroy them.

Second—and this is more to Vinsel and Russell’s point—our rabid focus on innovation renders invisible the real labour that goes into sustaining society. It is not The Innovators that make the world go around, they argue, but The Maintainers. Our world is constantly falling apart, and it is the ordinary masses of people, doing very mundane and very unsexy work that keep it together. The people who collect our garbage, who repair our bridges and buildings, who mend our bodily wounds. It is this everyday labour, not the cult of innovation, that is most vital to human flourishing.

Considering this, Vinsel and Russell call for a reassessment of our relationship with technology—one that considers what we actually value about technology, so we might once again reach again towards moral and not just material progress.

_________________

Future Perfect's Slow Reading offers a synoptic look at the best of longform journalism

Comments