“The most important book I’ve read in a long time . . . It explains so much about what is wrong with our technology, our economy, and the world, and gives a simple recipe for how to fix it: Focus on understanding what it takes for your products and services to last.”—Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media
It’s hard to avoid innovation these days. Nearly every product gets marketed as being disruptive, whether it’s genuinely a new invention or just a new toothbrush. But in this manifesto on thestate of American work, historians of technology Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell argue that our way of thinking about and pursuing innovation has made us poorer, less safe, and—ironically—less innovative.
Drawing on years of original research and reporting, The Innovation Delusion shows how the ideology of change for its own sake has proved a disaster. Corporations have spent millions hiring chief innovation officers while their core businesses tank. Computer science programs have drilled their students on programming and design, even though theoverwhelming majority of jobs are in IT and maintenance. In countless cities, suburban sprawl has left local governments with loads of deferred repairs that they can’t afford to fix. And sometimes innovation even kills—like in 2018 when a Miami bridge hailed for its innovative design collapsed onto a highway and killed six people.
In this provocative, deeply researched book, Vinsel and Russell tell the story of how we devalued the work that underpins modern life—and, in doing so, wrecked our economy and public infrastructure while lining the pockets of consultants who combine the ego of Silicon Valley with the worst of Wall Street’s greed. The authors offer a compelling plan for how we can shift our focus away from the pursuit of growth at all costs, and back toward neglected activities like maintenance, care, and upkeep.
For anyone concerned by the crumbling state of our roads and bridges or the direction our economy is headed, The Innovation Delusion is a deeply necessary reevaluation of a trend we can still disrupt.
|Crown Publishing Group
|6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)
About the Author
Andrew L. Russell is a professor of history and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Together, they are the founders of the Maintainers research network and conferences, and their writing on the topics of this book have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Wired.
Read an Excerpt
The Problem with Innovation
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
—“for want of a nail,” undated proverb
The explosions started at 8:00 a.m. with a spark from a bookstore furnace. Gas had leaked from a corroded local storage tank and into the city sewers overnight, and the cloud of vapor wound its way around the system before escaping through floor drains of downtown stores. The explosions rocked four buildings in all. Nobody was hurt, but authorities evacuated twenty thousand people from a thirteen-block area. It was an unpleasant start to a cold April morning in Saint John, a small town in the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
On that day in 1986, four of the buildings directly above the leak were badly damaged. But one of their neighbors, located within the same radius, was spared. Why?
The person who knows the answer—Heidi Overhill—let us in on the secret. Her late father, T. Douglas Overhill, ran an engineering consulting firm specializing in preventive maintenance. His favorite poem, which we quote above, was “For Want of a Nail,” a paean to the far-reaching consequences of neglected maintenance. One of Overhill’s clients, the owner of an office building in Saint John, had been following a plan Heidi’s father designed for maintaining the property. Heidi described it to us in detail: “One of the scheduled tasks was to pour a bucket of water down each of the basement floor drains. Floor drains tend to dry out, and when there is no water in the S-shaped traps in the drainpipes, bad smells [and explosive gases] from the sewers can leak up through them.” The fix for this problem is simple—“a bucket of water every now and then will seal the trap and make the basement smell better.”
On the day of the explosions, the surviving building belonged to Overhill’s client, who had recently poured a bucket of water into the floor drain to seal it. But the owners of the neighboring stores that were damaged had followed no such plan.
In real life, as in Overhill’s favorite proverb, the kingdom was lost—and all for the want of maintenance.
Do you ever get the feeling that everyone around you worships the wrong gods? That, through fluke or oversight, our society’s charlatans have been cast as its heroes, and the real heroes have been forgotten?
In a 2009 interview, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, reflecting on his young company’s success, shared what has become a mantra for our times: “One of the core values of Facebook is ‘Move fast and break things.’ Unless you are breaking some stuff you are not moving fast enough.” Rapid growth is the sine qua non of the digital economy—just ask anybody who has owned stock in Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon. New features draw new users and more revenue from advertisers and subscribers, which helps companies secure more funding and hire more people.
Digital upstarts like Facebook succeed when they displace incumbents; that is why Zuckerberg was comfortable with the costs of taking risks. “One of the trade-offs that we made,” he later remarked, “was we tolerated some defects in the product.” This tactic works in the digital economy, where users are accustomed to beta releases and flaky connections, and the costs of fixing broken code pale in comparison with the costs of fixing a physical product, such as a car with faulty airbags or a bookstore with dried-out floor drains. In other words, “move fast and break things” is something more than a juvenile crack from a CEO who was twenty-five years old at the time he said it. It’s a business strategy, an ethos that applies equally to product development and to Facebook’s aggressiveness in buying out potential rivals, such as WhatsApp and Instagram.
Zuckerberg wasn’t alone in this outlook. At least since the dot-com crash of 2001, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and business school professors flouted common sense with buzzwords like “disruptive innovation” and “creative destruction,” not to mention the imperative to “fail faster [to] succeed sooner.” This approach quickly became recognized as the “start-up” mentality, and innovation was its prime directive—a demand for rapid growth that disrupts the comfortable incumbents of the status quo. To be sure, this innovation mindset led to some amazing things. Sixteen years after being launched, Facebook has more than two billion users around the world. Billions more would have a hard time functioning without constant access to Google or an iPhone.
As business leaders embraced this worldview, its effects spilled out beyond the economy. We adjusted our values, even our vision of democracy, to be suitably deferential to the gods of Silicon Valley. We tolerated increasing amounts of “screen time” for our children and pledged our attention to addictive apps. A 2018 Georgetown University survey found that Americans trust Amazon and Google more than local, state, or federal government. In early 2016, an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal even floated the idea of a new political party that could bring “radical disruption” to “Establishment America.” The leaders of this movement could come from Silicon Valley—perhaps Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, or another of its heroes—and they could call it the “Innovation Party.” After all, the essay concluded, “Who is against innovation?” The new political party failed fast, never moving past the op-ed phase.
Novelty is at the core of American identity. (How many of our cities have names that begin with “New”?) Since the sixteenth century, we’ve been pushing stubbornly past “frontiers” of all kinds to reap the bounties of natural resources, political autonomy, and scientific progress. In the twenty-first century, our new digital gadgets were self-evident emblems of the superiority of the innovation mindset. The companies that made these gadgets and their “killer apps” grew until they were the most highly valued corporations in world history. Their lush corporate campuses became coveted destinations for college graduates. Their executives became icons. A nation mourned in 2011 when Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs died. Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk was named among 2019’s most admired people in America—ahead of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, but a significant distance behind Barack Obama and Donald Trump, America’s disrupter in chief.
And so, Americans went all in on innovation. Businesses created new positions like chief innovation officer and “Innovation Evangelist.” Universities invested millions of dollars to build flashy new Innovation Centers, and philanthropists supported ambitious proposals for transforming some of our most basic cultural institutions. Schools at the K–12 level “disrupted” education by introducing laptops and tablets into the classroom and seeking to instill characteristics like “grit,” entrepreneurialism, and “Design Thinking” in their students. Millennials in the job market reported feeling worthless and burned out if their creative exploits fell short of their own expectations or those of people they followed on Instagram. The result of all this change is dubious—in most cases, advocates cannot show that the efforts to stoke innovation have delivered on their promises. But that hasn’t stopped Americans from upending centuries of tradition in the name of newfangled fads.
The entrepreneurs and investors of Silicon Valley have profited from software, and this success has given them the capital and confidence to branch out into other fields. But while Zuckerberg’s advice to “move fast and break things” is still considered good counsel for web designers and app builders—professions where profit margins are high, the costs of failure are low, and venture capital is plentiful—it turns out that “move fast and break things,” and the innovation mindset more generally, can be lousy guidance for anyone who builds or designs actual things.
In 2016, reviewers celebrated the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 as a “beautiful” validation of Samsung’s “innovation strategy”; that is, until hundreds of customers began to complain about burns and property damage caused by the phone’s exploding battery. A Miami bridge praised for its “innovative” design killed six people when it collapsed onto a six-lane highway in 2018. And Elizabeth Holmes, who in 2003 founded the blood-testing start-up Theranos at age nineteen, moved fast—raising more than $700 million from investors and achieving a $10 billion valuation for her company. But Theranos also broke things, namely, laws protecting investors from the fraudulent, dangerous claims about the company’s “revolutionary” technology. When digital-age companies encounter old problems in their new ventures in the material world—logistics, manufacturing, consumer tastes, societal norms and regulations, and traditional dynamics of supply and demand—they consistently flounder.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Problem with Innovation 5
Chapter 2 Turning Anxiety into a Product 19
Chapter 3 Technology after Innovation 37
Chapter 4 Slow Disaster 59
Chapter 5 Growth at All Costs 81
Chapter 6 The Maintainer Caste 100
Chapter 7 A Crisis of Care 120
Chapter 8 The Maintenance Mindset 141
Chapter 9 Fix It First 159
Chapter 10 Supporting the Work That Matters Most 178
Chapter 11 Caring for Our Homes, Our Stuff, and One Another 198
Epilogue: From Conversation to Action 218