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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

 

The few, the proud, the "maintainers"

by Tom Sullivan

After spending several post-college months riding trains around Europe, I took the train from New York to Washington, D.C. where I'd left my car with my sister. Compared to the silky ride of the Deutsche Bahn, this sucker was rocking, rumbling, and lurching all the way. Thought I was going to die.

The experience gave me a gut-level appreciation for well-maintained infrastructure and the unsung people who keep things working so smoothly one only notices when they don't. "Hail the maintainers," write Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell for Aeon. "Innovation," they believe, is overvalued:

At the turn of the millennium, in the world of business and technology, innovation had transformed into an erotic fetish. Armies of young tech wizards aspired to become disrupters. The ambition to disrupt in pursuit of innovation transcended politics, enlisting liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative politicians could gut government and cut taxes in the name of spurring entrepreneurship, while liberals could create new programmes aimed at fostering research. The idea was vague enough to do nearly anything in its name without feeling the slightest conflict, just as long as you repeated the mantra: INNOVATION!! ENTREPRENEURSHIP!!
The hucksterism behind it leads almost inevitably to social displacement and economic inequality, "a feature, not a bug of highly innovative regions." What keeps the world turning often amounts to very old inventions used in novel ways and the infrastructure underlying those technologies. Fortune's David Z. Morris commented on the Aeon essay, noting:
Vinsel and Russel argue that, particularly in the last twenty years, talk about innovation has become increasingly counterproductive. One key example is America’s ongoing infrastructure crisis, which they say can be blamed partly on a culture that celebrates investment in innovation over upkeep. Only a wave of train crashes, subway meltdowns, and poisoned water reminiscent of the developing world has pushed infrastructure maintenance back into public debate in the U.S.
Much of the dissatisfaction in evidence this election year is a result of innovations such as securitization, trade agreements, and disruptive technologies. We value technology. We value the economy. But we've delivered mankind into servitude to them. Plus, we are so enamored of the shiny and new, we've let the everyday crumble beneath our shoes. Vinsel and Russell write:
We can think of labour that goes into maintenance and repair as the work of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things. Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep. This realisation has significant implications for gender relations in and around technology. Feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track.
Writing for the Guardian, David Ferguson appreciates the work done by the maintainers:
I have endless respect for people behind the scenes keeping the world together. I remember the pride I once took in being a restaurant dishwasher. Yes, the job is, in some ways, at the bottom of the food chain. It’s typically the lowest-paid position in any restaurant, and yet there is a simple, satisfying power to it. To customers, you’re invisible, but you’re ultimately the person who is keeping them safe from germs and cross-contamination, an invisible lifeguard at life’s watering hole.

Each morning, you show up, put on an apron and then tackle the day’s mound of dirty dishes. It’s sweaty, sometimes backbreaking, work, but the core mission is always the same: make it all sparkle and put it back where it belongs. Keep everything moving. Everybody’s got to eat and if they’re going to eat, they’re going to need some dishes.
I have such a job. I help design and maintain the factories that make the products you use without considering where they come from or the thought and labor that went into them.

Consider this. It's Primary Day in New York. Recent election failures have spawned conspiracy theories about political machinations by one major party or the other. They're all the same, all corrupt, etc. But one thing most people voting today will fail to appreciate is the army of maintainers it takes for democracy to happen. Until things stop working, that is.

You go to your precinct on Election Day and see maybe five people working there (three judges and perhaps two assistants in NC). There are 2,700 precincts in this state alone. That's 13,500 workers. Plus the election services staffs and Election Boards of 100 counties. Plus the state Election Board staff in the capitol. Approaching 15,000 in all. That's well over a military division's worth of manpower for democratic elections to happen in a single state. The precinct-level maintainers don't come from Craigsist. They're mostly party people recruited by unsung party functionaries no one ever sees, who attend boring meetings no one else wants to sit through. They work behind the scenes, year-in and year-out, and in off-years when no one is paying attention to horse-race media coverage. They make democracy happen. It's not innovative. It's not sexy or exciting (as John Oliver demonstrates below). It's an effort of dedication.