The Maintainers: A Call for Proposals

Last year, when Walter Isaacson published his book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, historians met it with a good deal of skepticism. For instance, members of the computer history organization, SIGCIS, questioned Isaacson's mastery of the basic facts, pointing to problematic statements the author made both in the book itself and in promotional interviews.

Other criticisms challenged Isaacson's interpretation in a more fundamental way. For example, in the book's introduction, Isaacson espouses twin ambitions: first, he wanted to draw attention to the central role that groups, teamwork, and "collaborative creativity" played in the invention of digital technologies. (He incorrectly regurgitates long-debunked myths that earlier technologies depended on solitary geniuses--Edison, Bell, Morse--and implies that collaboration is something particularly true of the digital.) Second, he wished to spell out "the social and cultural forces that provide the atmosphere for innovation," including the "research ecosystem." In other words, he aspired to write history. Yet, The Innovators is fundamentally a work containing a series of mini-biographies. Isaacson misses opportunities to write about groups and their dynamics in a deep way. And throughout the book, he highlights the "ecosystem" of invention only selectively, missing the crucial lesson that all technologies develop in specific historical contexts.

It gets worse. The Innovators biggest problem is that it's called The Innovators and is written in the dialect of innovation speak, perhaps the dominant ideology of the day, beloved of Silicon Valley-headed libertarians, TED Talkers, Wall Street business hustlers, and Republican and Democrat presidents alike. While Isaacson admits that innovation has become a buzzword, he repeats the ideology uncritically. He promises "to report on how innovation actually happens in the real world," but his framing almost totally neglects the real world as it actually exists.

Isaacson's neglect is problematic in many ways, and like much writing on innovation, it gives us a narrow and skewed picture of life with technology. For this reason, the historian of technology, Andrew L. Russell, author of Open Standards and the Digital Age, has proposed that scholars produce a volume that responds to Isaacson's book, with the following title:

The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Digital Infrastructures That Kind of Work Most of the Time

Since Russell produced this parody, a number of scholars in science and technology studies have discussed developing its core insight. The discussion has moved well beyond the realm of digital technologies to include all forms of infrastructure, the mundane labor that goes into sustaining everyday life, and the people who are left out or fare poorly in our current technological arrangements, both within rich, industrial nations and outside of them.

Our ultimate dream is to hold a conference or workshop or even a series of gatherings on this theme and perhaps to produce an edited volume on it. We would like to begin the discussion at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), which will be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 8-11, 2015. The hope would be to propose a few interconnected panels for that conference. Proposals are due on March 31st.

I am writing this blog post to find like-minded individuals who are interested in exploring this the history of maintenance, infrastructure, and mundane labor, broadly construed. We believe that such investigations could have practical upshots, and we are especially keen to involve practitioners, including standards engineers, forensic engineers and architectures, managers in charge of safety and maintenance, policymakers who focus on upkeep and infrastructure health, and others involved in such pursuits. Furthermore, this effort must have an international and transnational dimension, including work on "developing nations." (Some of us, for example, are interested in the development economist, Albert O. Hirschmann's insistence that, to survive, societies must develop a "maintenance habit.")

We are not pretending that we are breaking fundamentally new ground here. This push builds on the back of Ruth Schwartz Cowan's and David Edgerton's calls to focus more on mundane or everyday technologies, for example, as well as on the large body of works on the history of infrastructure written by scholars including Joel Tarr, Mark Rose, Bruce Seely, Amy Slayton, Steven Usselman, Susan Leigh Star, Geoffrey Bowker, Paul Edwards, Scott Knowles, and Chris Jones, to name a few. In other words, our debt is immense.

Still, we believe that the theme is worth pursuing and that, in pursuing it, we might push back, however slightly, on our society's too shallow, too easy, and too sleazy obsession with "innovation."

If you are interested in what I have written above, including proposing a paper or panel for SHOT, please drop me a line at