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The Perils of Innovation

Over at Aeon mag, Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell write [1] that “innovation” is something we’ve blown out of proportion:

… Contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not. Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?

One consequence of our obsession with innovation is that we constantly create new things, rather than maintaining and treasuring old ones—and often become wrapped up in consumerism, rather than in care.

Take homeownership and home-building in America: on the street my husband and I live on, the little 850 to 1,000 square-foot houses of past decades are being torn down and replaced with massive, sprawling monstrosities. Area developers don’t care that the lot in question is tiny: yard and space to grow things doesn’t matter these days. What matters is square footage—because every extra piece of hardwood and granite squeezed into that house is extra money in the developers’ pockets, while grass gets them nothing.

Yet at the same time, as Felicia Rose writes [2] for Mother Earth News, “Tiny houses, often defined as those under five-hundred square feet, have gained purchase in recent years. Their lure is apparent. In a society of architectural obesity, they represent a clean-limbed leanness (or gauntness).” How do we reconcile this cultural obsession with “obese” houses, alongside growing desire for houses winnowed down to almost nothing?

While one may be worse for the neighborhood, both reflect our societal obsession with the new, the progressive, the “innovative.” There are plenty of old tiny houses throughout America. But most tiny house owners want something that’s still new, exciting, adapted to the latest technologies, and—perhaps most importantly—rootless. Something on wheels. Something that doesn’t require putting down stakes.

A society in love with innovation is a society that, oftentimes, has rejected the idea of limits. There’s no end to our exploring, because we don’t believe that we should stop anywhere. We aren’t content with our old smartphones or computers—we want the latest, newest thing, and expect companies to keep innovating endlessly.

Additionally, we’ve gotten used to spending money to get something fixed, rather than fixing it ourselves. This cultivates ignorance, and can turn us into discarders, rather than maintainers. Cars and houses can always be replaced with newer cars and bigger houses. Old things require a lot of work, tinkering, and upkeep. New things present us with a degree leisure and ease that is difficult to pass up.

But craftsmen, mechanics, gardeners, cooks, and cleaners—each of these trades, simple though they seem, keeps the world ordered and beautiful. As Vinsel and Russell write, “focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going.”

The individual who dedicates his or her life to maintenance and repair is the one who “keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things,” they write. They are the husbandmen and housewives, plumbers and janitors, construction workers and electricians. “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.”

Jobs that involve “upkeep” are not highly valued in today’s world. A farmer told me last year that most jobs—like his—that involve manual labor are viewed as blue collar and unintellectual, jobs for the high school dropouts and unambitious. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill and Wall Street and Silicon Valley receive the accolades, the geniuses, and the money. The former are, indeed, “ordinary” vocations in comparison, and rather quotidian forms of existence. But the job of maintaining—the earth, its infrastructure, and its people—is absolutely vital to our wellbeing and flourishing.

In The Unsettling of America, farmer and essayist Wendell Berry shares the memory of an interaction he once had with another farmer:

Several years ago I argued with a friend of mine that we might make money by marketing some inferior lambs. My friend thought for a minute and then he said, “I’m in the business of producing good lambs, and I’m not going to sell any other kind.” He also said that he kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face. The human race has survived by that attitude. It can survive only by that attitude…  

Many people associate the word “innovation” with Republican sentiment, because the party prizes capitalism, free markets, and entrepreneurship. But to be a conservative is also, importantly, to desire to conserve things. To appreciate the quotidian labor that keeps our world going—and to join the maintainers in tending our little square of earth, keeping the weeds out of our gardens with the same diligence and zeal with which we wash our faces.

It involves an appreciation for the work of creating, but also an acknowledgment that “new” isn’t always better—that there should be a limit and end (both literally and teleologically) to our innovation, because we already have good things worth tending. And even though we won’t make millions doing it, it is the simple task of maintaining that lifts us out of empty consumerism and into the realm of stewardship and care.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "The Perils of Innovation"

#1 Comment By mark_be On April 15, 2016 @ 9:42 am

I have never, ever before seen someone, Republican, Democrat or whatever, use the word ‘innovation’ to describe a Republican mindset, except perhaps in their unending efforts to develop new ways to deregulate corporations, regulate women’s healthcare, destroy the government, and worship unlimited power… I mean profits.

As far as houses go, the older they are, the more expensive they become in upkeep, and bringing them up to modern day standards in comfort and energy efficiency tends to be just as expensive as, if not more than, simply building a new house. That the replacements are architectural monstrosities is not a problem of innovation, but of developers’ views and the public’s expectations of what a modern house should be. Or look like. And as we all know, people have no taste.

The problem with upkeep versus replacement is the question of which products should be kept and repaired, and which should be replaced. This question does not have a simple answer. On the rare occasion that the wooden handle of one of my gardening tools breaks, I simply put in a new handle. Should my aging laptop break, I’ll try to fix it, or have it fixed, unless the out-of-warranty cost should prove too high. If my mom’s 25-year old washing machine ever breaks, should she have it fixed? Any cost for that machine would be too much. These days, it can be properly recycled instead of being dumped on a landfill. A new washing machine would save a tremendous amount of water and power. And yet, the black-boxing of modern electronic household items makes even minor malfuctions difficult to repair. Who hasn’t yet brought their car to a garage because computer says error, only to have the mechanic hook it up to his computer, which says no error?

So, yes, when considering repair cost, replacement cost, environmental cost (just kidding, even many in the green movement prefer old, polluting stuff over new cleaner stuff because consumerism), future repair cost (sunken cost fallacy really is one of the better ones) and possible inability to repair in the future cost, who can still tell what is the better option? And doing it yourself, well, that depends, doesn’t it. I can’t fix a car, have no interest in fixing cars, and thus I’m happy to pay someone to do it for me. Properly, hopefully. Bricolage is nice, but only when it’s done right.

#2 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On April 15, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

Thank you, AmCon, for replacing the former stock photo of the guy using an angle grinder without eye protection, for this better image of someone with full face protection.

–a metalworker

#3 Comment By Rambler89 On April 15, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

Maintaining it (or making it) yourself is also, very often, good clean fun, and good satisfying work, which will leave you with something valuable in the future-both the material object (or the payment therefor) and the skills exercised. Basic maintenance involves more-basic, and therefore more widely useful skills (and more fun) than does the user’s manipulation of the typical consumer electronics gadget, whose mode of operation is often peculiar to the gadget type, and often also to the manufacturer and the individual product line.

Some experience, of course, is required to do most such jobs well, or even well enough. No-one can be greatly experienced in more than a few such fields. No-one ever could. So pick a specialty, or a hobby. Or just casually develop a wide range of basic skills and knowledge (such as tool use and materials basics) that will allow you to do a wide range of basic jobs in many fields, and leave you ready to pursue any new and interesting avenues that may appear.

Another advantage of production and maintenance occupations, appreciated by many in those fields, is the much lower BS factor. One can be like Wendell Berry’s farmer. This saves much contradiction and unnecessary complication in one’s life, including the complications that come with behaving unfairly toward others.

#4 Comment By Lee Vinsel On April 16, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

Thanks for these reflections, Gracy.

I have been saying over and over that maintenance is about CONSERVING, and for this reason, there’s a lot to draw on from the Conservative tradition. For example, Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott taught me that a part of our moral duty is tending to the things that we have *inherited*. (Of course, this idea also resounds throughout Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology.) However, I typically contrast this mindset with that of some individuals, like Chris Christie, who seem to believe that “conservatism” means “no new taxes.” Consequently, we have rotting infrastructure here in New Jersey. What I like about the theme of Maintenance is that it crosses party lines. I look forward to having more discussions with conservatives on these topics, including hopefully with The New Atlantis.

Very best,

Lee Vinsel

#5 Comment By DobermanBoston On April 16, 2016 @ 7:22 pm

Additionally, we’ve gotten used to spending money to get something fixed, rather than fixing it ourselves.

I’m forced to disagree. I’ve found far more amateur handymen (handypeople?) among my fellow Gen X-ers than I did among the contemporaries of my parents or grandparents.

Perhaps that’s specific to my background, though.

#6 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 18, 2016 @ 11:03 pm

Building on what what poster “mark be” said, and beating my own favorite dead horse (!), we see here once again the command for the individual, enmeshed in a capitalist system, to “eat his peas,” rather than serve his self interest. “Area developers” (and notice that dismissive terminology for landowners…language that would, and rightly so, get condemned if a leftist used it), presumably, do what they do because they think that will maximize profit. In other words, despite the alleged “purchase” that “tiny houses” have “gained,” most buyers actually want bigger houses, and don’t actually care all that much about “yard and space to grow things.” The buyers WANT “massive, sprawling monstrosities,” and so the “developers” give it to them.

But this wrong, somehow. Folks who don’t live in
Denmark, or even a Barry Sanders-type country, should forego profit (on the part of the sellers), or comfort, convenience and desire (on the part of the buyers), because the author wishes that they would, in the name of some higher, non market, communitarian value. The person who owns the house and land should, presumably, take less money for it, if the buyer won’t knock down the house and replace it (and much of the lawn) with a bigger house. And the buyer should act as if he values having a “tiny house,” and some extra lawn, over a “monstrosity,” even if he doesn’t.

It seems to me that the Wendell Berrys and the Gracy Olmsteads of the world simply refuse to face the inevitable implications of their own ethos. Namely that capitalism is the root of all of their complaints about “modernism” (or “innovation” or whatever). Everything is for sale. Money is the most important thing. And that stinks.

And, for the most part, it is conservatives who have put this idea over. Socialists, leftists, etc., they have all been saying, for decades, for centuries now, that putting money above everything else is not the way to go. And it has been conservatives who have insisted on “free markets” in everything. You want zoning regulations? Great. You want to end the idea that the “developer” is presumptively right and “the Government” wrong? Fine. Go tell Ted Cruz.