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How 'Maintainers,' Not 'Innovators,' Make the World Turn

We need more stories about the labor that sustains society, a group of scholars say.
A woman cleans a corridor of an abandoned convent in Brussels.
A woman cleans a corridor of an abandoned convent in Brussels.REUTERS/Yves Herman

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 you buy the rhetoric of certain books and novelty-oriented publications (including, sometimes, your very own CityLab).

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.