Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel on the New York Times:

While innovation — the social process of introducing new things — is important, most technologies around us are old, and for the smooth functioning of daily life, maintenance is more important. […] It’s not just maintenance that our society fails to appreciate; it’s also the maintainers themselves. We do not grant them high social status or high salaries. Typically, maintenance is a blue-collar occupation: mechanic, plumber, janitor, electrician. There are white-collar maintainers (like the I.T. crowd) and white-jacket maintainers (like dentists). But they, too, are not celebrated like the inventor.

Once you notice this problem — innovation is exalted, maintenance devalued — you begin to see it everywhere.

Same authors (they organised a conference around this topic), on Aeon Magazine:

First, it is crucial to understand that technology is not innovation. Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old. […]

Second, by dropping innovation, we can recognise the essential role of basic infrastructures. […]

Third, 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.

To truly appreciate the mundane labour that keeps everything running pay attention to the details, to how stuff works. It’s anything but mundane. Maintaining stuff should be cool.

Un-doing is oftentimes easier — the number of times I heard someone suggesting starting from scratch to take the complexity away. The problem with this line of thought is that things only stay simple in the beginning. Any mature system is complex.

This is from Connections, James Burke’s documentary television series produced by the BBC in 1978, on how technology and change happens. It’s a personal account of how we got to now, how ideas spread and technology evolves; overall I think what Burke does well is showing how everything is connected. Throughout Connections knowledge is analysed foremost as a distributed system within a community, rather than as a personal asset (as something that I, as an individual, have or not). In Burke’s view then progress happens when a new detail of reality becomes widely known to a group of people, to one civilisation.

His point is also that — as we add layers of technology to our society — it becomes impossible for each and one of us to have a solid understanding of how everything works. Knowledge has to be distributed, by necessity. In our everyday interactions — when we open the tap, flush the toilet, flip the switch — we don’t have to think about how something works: it just works. The functioning of the systems which support the technologies is abstracted for us.

As as result, we’re mostly clueless: we move between abstractions, failing to notice the model, unaware of the complexity of the network we built. To say it differently: any mature technology eventually recedes to the state of nature, to background, to part of the environment and of how things are, unquestioned and taken for granted. What Burke also seems to say is that although our strength — our ability to survive and adapt — derives from technology, the complexity that technology has introduced over time has reduced (if not removed) our individual ability to survive.

I sympathise with this argument — it’s why I was never charmed by the escape to the pond kind of literature. It’s naive at best to believe that at this stage any single one of us is not totally reliant on the layers of technology (water supply, electricity, and so on) that we put in place and on the outsourcing of the knowledge required to keep them running.

Which is another way of saying that reality has an infinite amount of details, most of which we’re unaware of. As soon as we look closely into something, we realise the stark vastness of our ignorance. It might be a useful thing to remind ourselves of, before entertaining any dream of self-sufficiency outside of society.

Speaking of how the model of reality which a technology proposes can end up influencing and changing reality itself, here’s George Dyson:

Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it /is/ human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls. If enough drivers subscribe to a real-time map, traffic is controlled, with no central model except the traffic itself. The successful social network is no longer a model of the social graph, it is the social graph. This is why it is a winner-take-all game. Governments, with an allegiance to antiquated models and control systems, are being left behind.

Maps make for a good example here. We’re all aware that the mercator projection is an inaccurate model of reality, one which distorts the true size of countries and is skewed in favour of Europe, nonetheless that’s what we use to describe the world, it’s what we think of when we think of a map — it’s the default, almost natural, choice.

The risk here is for a model to become so ingrained that we end up forgetting about the other options we had — or that what we’re using is, in fact, just a model.

Un documentario sul rapporto dell’uomo con tecnologia e natura. Di Tom Lowe, prodotto da Terrence Malick.

Nel suo ultimo libro, The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen — blogger ed economista — sostiene che la società americana abbia smesso di rischiare e si sia seduta — preferendo miglioramenti marginali a tecnologie pre-esistenti piuttosto che cambiamenti radicali, il che ha contribuito col portare l’economia a una situazione di stagnazione. A cambiamenti radicali nel modo di creare, consumare e organizzare l’informazione si sono affiancati cambiamenti marginali nel mondo fisico: treni, aerei, infrastruttura, ad esempio, non sono progrediti di pari passo con il mondo virtuale.

Secondo Tyler, questo ritmo di ‘non cambiamento’ non è sostenibile:

The Complacent Class argues that this cannot go on forever. We are postponing change, due to our near-sightedness and extreme desire for comfort, but ultimately this will make change, when it comes, harder. The forces unleashed by the Great Stagnation will eventually lead to a major fiscal and budgetary crisis: impossibly expensive rentals for our most attractive cities, worsening of residential segregation, and a decline in our work ethic. The only way to avoid this difficult future is for Americans to force themselves out of their comfortable slumber—to embrace their restless tradition again.