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  • After Innovation, Turn to Maintenance
  • Andrew L. Russell (bio) and Lee Vinsel (bio)


“It’s funny ’cause it’s true.”

—Homer J. Simpson

In the fall of 2014 the best-seller lists featured a hot new book with an unlikely cast of characters: pioneers in the history of computing. The book’s author, Walter Isaacson, had established impeccable credentials as a hagiographer with books on Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. Reviewers showered Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators, with praise that was befitting an author of American media royalty (Isaacson was the former managing editor of Time and the former chairman and CEO of CNN). The Innovators was a born best seller, capturing the era’s enthusiasm for all things digital and new. It even had one of those splashy subtitles, pulled from a genre of subtitles that would enrage dissertation committees: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital [End Page 1] Revolution. It seemed like everything about Isaacson’s new book was calculated not only to make a lot of money but also to drive academic historians up their ivy-covered walls: a breezy overview of a complicated topic; a slick marketing campaign; and a starring role for one of our era’s most tiresome buzzwords, innovation.

In other words, everything about the book made it an easy target for a joke. And one came to mind as one of us was plodding through his usual morning routines. Andy imagined that historians of technology should answer Isaacson’s book with another one, a book that would stay true to our field’s appreciation for contingency, nuance, moral ambiguity, and our thematic touchstones such as gender, labor, users, risk, and regulation. He even came up with a title: The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Digital Infrastructures That Kind of Work Most of the Time.1

We quickly reframed the joke to include all technologies, not just digital ones, and began playing around with it online in blog posts and on Twitter. The idea of the Maintainers took on a life of its own and resonated with many communities around the globe. It resonated, we think, because it framed technologies in a way that everyone knew to be true but that few people acknowledged—particularly the authors and marketers of best sellers. Moreover, as we will discuss below, the concept valorized important but often unrecognized work that historians of technology were already doing. We explored going beyond mere jokes at an exuberant happy hour at SHOT’s Albuquerque meeting in 2015. Encouraged by that enthusiasm and ideas from many colleagues, we decided to push forward, writing an essay for Aeon magazine, starting a network of scholars and professionals, holding conferences at Stevens Institute of Technology in 2016 and 2017, and communicating via social media, interviews, blog posts, essays, op-eds, and podcasts.

We were astonished to see a joke become a movement. The movement grew, and continues to grow, for a variety of reasons that we did not anticipate. First, the broad theme of maintenance pulls out and pulls together many themes within our field, alive in work that our colleagues were already doing. Second, talking about maintenance brings our subfield into conversation with an endless variety of disciplines and practices, such as anthropology, economics, engineering, and business. Third, maintenance is a topic that appeals to audiences outside of academia: people love to read about it and talk about it, probably because they can easily see how important maintenance is for their own lives. Fourth, maintenance seems to be perpetually in the headlines in our age of train derailments, hurricanes, and infrastructure breakdown.

In this essay we want to focus on the different ways that maintenance [End Page 2] can function as the core of an agenda for interpretation, reinterpretation, and new research for historians of technology. It is an attempt to consolidate some of the things we have observed and learned, to ask readers to tell us about what we have missed, and to make the case that a turn to maintenance can generate compelling new ways to think about technology and its histories.

Although the dichotomy...


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