You know that thing that everyone knows you’re not supposed to do when you read stuff on the internet? I did it recently. First, I read a short but really thought-provoking article from The Atlantic‘s CityLab online mag that a grad school friend shared on her Facebook page. But I didn’t stop there…I read the comments.
As it turns out, that was a useful exercise – I’ll get to that in a minute.
The article, “How ‘Maintainers,’ Not ‘Innovators,’ Make the World Turn,” alerted me to the fact that a group of historians, social scientists, artists, activists, and engineers assembled for a conference in early April at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey to start a critical conversation about our sometimes blind celebration of “innovation” and “innovators,” especially as drivers of economic and technological change. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and buzzwords like “disruption” and “visionary.” The novelty created by innovation is intoxicating and seductive, full of the promise that we have the power to constantly refashion the world to more easily and efficiently deliver whatever it is we’re searching for in that moment: wealth, health, happiness. And the heroes of this story are often larger than life – the independent, “self-made” men and women who bring about change through the force of their own brilliance and personality, without assistance and often to the amazement of naysayers and critics.
There are lots of ways to interrogate the dominant innovation narrative, but one of the most important is by exposing how this story excludes and obscures the lives and work of people that the conference organizers call “the maintainers:” those whose labor sustains our society but is so often “unnamed, unseen, and underpaid.” As Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute, puts it, “In a culture where we forget about things like crumbling infrastructure* and wage inequality, those narratives about technological change can be really dangerous.”
Since “The Maintainers” conference program is available online, I spent some serious time nerding out with papers like “That New Car Smell: Social Innovation, Maintenance, and Civil Society,” “Upkeep: The Erasure and Rediscovery of Maintenance,” and “Systems of Maintenance: Feminist Theory and Method.” There’s cool stuff in there if you’re willing to wade through some obligatory academic jargon, and I especially found a lot to chew on in a paper given by Amy Slaton of Drexel University – she’s a professor specializing in the history of American science, technology, and architecture as well as U.S. labor history and race relations.
In “Mere Maintenance: Stratified Industrial Labor and The Reproduction of Human Difference,” Slaton demonstrates that American industry, in theory and in practice, rests on distinct labor hierarchies with fairly strict and impermeable demarcations between knowledge work, production, and maintenance. This structure isn’t inherently bad – all labor systems incorporate jobs demanding different skill sets, training, and experiences. What is bad is the fact that there is often a “constrained (emphasis mine) set of conditions, opportunities, and resources” associated with each kind of work. Even worse, this rigid system of stratified labor reinforces the idea that there are not only different kinds of jobs, but also different kinds of people who can and should do them. As Slaton explains,
“When we ask of American workplaces, ‘who maintains?’ we see clearly not just that the three kinds of labor are cast as distinct, bearing with them distinct and unequal working conditions and life opportunities, but also that the stratified nature of industrial labor in the United States maps tidily onto ascribed differences of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability and other categorizations of human type. In the United States today as in preceding eras, persons of minority identities are not proportionately represented in knowledge work. They are disproportionately represented in the jobs we label as maintenance.”
One of the primary ways that our society assigns value to the labor system is through salaries and wages, so as lawmakers and pundits in Louisiana and elsewhere debate issues such as minimum wage and equal pay, it seems especially crucial to dig into the ways that the theory of stratified labor translates into devastating and often inescapable economic reality for so many Americans. It’s also really important to pay attention to the words that people in power use as they talk about the largely powerless people who are actually affected by, for instance, living in a state that has not legislated an official minimum wage, or the state with the nation’s largest pay gap between men and women.
This is strategic rhetoric designed to denigrate and minimize the crucial work performed by society’s “maintainers.” It also works to create and promote a negative, unsympathetic (and largely falsified) persona for the “typical” minimum wage earner in our society. As Slaton’s paper and others at “The Maintainers” conference illustrate, any other story would challenge not just the economic status quo but also persistent social myths about identity and capacity in America – what African-Americans can do, what women can do, what people with disabilities can do. If these personas and myths and justifications can be normalized, naturalized, and seemingly supported by data, over time the story just seems to make sense – that the people performing the maintenance work, the minimum wage jobs, are doing it because that’s what they’re “supposed” to do based on who they are.
This all might seem like theoretical gymnastics, but we know, of course, that perceptions and prejudices have very real consequences. I was reminded of this several times by reading the comments on that story (I promised I’d get back around to that) – although maybe unsurprisingly based on the outlet, they were pretty thoughtful instead of horrifying. But one comment in particular stood out to me as a really effective illustration of how rigid understandings of work and identity are not only divisive and damaging – they are actually the enemy of “innovation” (however defined). From “Liam781:”
“A friend of mine works at a tech-industry world-dominant company (not named for a fruit). He notes that the company culture there is so, sigh, entrepreneurial, that people in project teams are effectively discouraged from volunteering for the unglamorous but necessary work that is necessary to put everything together coherently – what I called mortar work. Everyone wants to only carve or create fancy stone/brickwork. No one wants to lay mortar, because mortar is invisible by comparison. Basically, it becomes a stare-down so that the most dutiful dullards do what no one else wants to be burdened with doing…This is a terrible mentality to encourage in teams, long-term.”
Terrible indeed – because what we see clearly here is that the individuals in question feel it is beneath them to do the “invisible” tasks that actually allow innovative ideas to come to fruition and society to progress. It means that they have internalized an understanding of themselves and others that makes it impossible for them to even consider lowering themselves to this kind of work. They’ve probably also formed an opinion about the people who do…and it’s probably not good.
Honestly, there’s lots to label as “terrible” within this topic, which is why I was encouraged to read that the organizers of “The Maintainers” conference ultimately want to convene a serious policy discussion with actual legislators to address issues like minimum wage, wage inequality, workplace regulation and safety, and union rights. It sounds like their initial conversations at the beginning of this month were useful for sharing ideas and sharpening strategies for telling compelling stories about the value of maintenance work and those who perform it. That’s good, because those who currently benefit the most from a system of stratified labor are also keenly interested in maintenance (isn’t it ironic?), but it’s maintenance of a system that slots people into neat, permanent little boxes based on who they are and what they do, with many advantages for those perceived to be doing the intellectual heavy lifting to produce success (the innovators!) and many obstacles and penalties for those doing the “mortar work.” Which has worked out so well for us here in Louisiana, you know?
I vote for some serious disruption.
*Your trusty DK doesn’t forget about crumbling infrastructure, though – did you read “Disinvestment & Decay” in March?