The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work that Matters Most
By Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell. 
Currency, 2020.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $28. 

Reviewed by Hans Zeiger.

Sam Smith, the former president of Washington State University and a veteran observer of higher education, has said that if you really want to know what is going on in a university, you should talk to a building custodian. Custodians see everything on the campus, overhear hallway conversations, and are likely to understand physical as well as cultural aspects of their institution that others miss. Underappreciated as they may be in an arena where academic credentials matter greatly, they are maintainers of a pride in the campus as a physical space. And surely there is insight to be found in consulting them about the places they maintain. In short, universities cannot do without custodians.

More broadly, society could not survive without maintainers of all kinds—car repair technicians, plumbers, and electricians, as well as bookkeepers, road maintenance workers, and keepers of complex systems in the field of information technology. Yet we tend to underemphasize and under-reward this kind of work even as we exalt the glories of “innovation.” Hence the critique offered by Lee Vinsel of Virginia Tech and Andrew Russell of SUNY Polytechnic Institute in their book The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work that Matters Most. 

According to Vinsel and Russell, “The Innovation Delusion is the false belief that the pursuit of innovation and novelty will lead us into the promised land of growth and profit when, in reality, it will lead us to ignore the ever-accumulating pile of deferred maintenance and infrastructural debt—and, in the process, lead individuals toward burnout and our society to accelerating levels of exploitation and inequality.” 

Vinsel and Russell are not opposed to innovation as such. Instead, they are critical of the hyped-up “innovation-speak” so common in Silicon Valley. “Unlike actual innovation, which is tangible, measurable, and much less common, innovation-speak is a sales pitch about a future that doesn’t yet exist,” they write. 

Innovation became a kind of stand-in for the related idea of “progress” in the late 20th century, they claim.  

In this context, we sometimes hear of “social entrepreneurs,” “design thinkers,” “change agents” or even “disrupters.” No doubt there is an important role for innovation in the realms of business, education, health, and civil society, but life is not primarily a function of innovation. Most human endeavors depend on qualities like safety, reliability, and trust. When we look for a good teacher, a good doctor, a good lawn care service provider, or a good mayor, we are mostly looking for people who care about the people they serve and who deliver a quality product or service.  

In the world of work, we hold professionalism and craftsmanship in high regard—or at least we ought to—because people who possess those qualities know the standards of their craft, they devote themselves to constant learning and development in their field, and they take pride in their work.  

Maintenance, write Vinsel and Russell, “is the practice of keeping daily life going, caring for the people and the things that matter most to us, and ensuring that we preserve and sustain the inheritance of our collective pasts. It’s the overlooked, undercompensated work that keeps our roads safe, our companies productive, and our lives happy and secure.”

Those who do maintenance work often find themselves at the bottom of a “caste-like social hierarchy,” according to the authors. Often without even thinking of it, we rank jobs according to their “occupational prestige,” write Vinsel and Russell. Cultural cues, intentional and unintentional, are largely to blame for this. “[W]e are taught how to stratify work,” write the authors, and the consequence is a distorted view of what really matters in the world of work. 

Of course, there are pitfalls for maintainers too: they might get stuck in their ways, resistant to change that is really needed. But if maintainers can keep a fresh attitude, they can serve their professions and the community in profound ways.  

In pursuit of correcting our imbalanced orientation toward innovation and maintenance, we need not be anti-growth or anti-free market. Rather, we should embrace sustainability, resilience, and continuity as guiding values for our economy, polity, civil society, and families. 

Indeed, according to Vinsel and Russell, the innovations we celebrate tend to come about through small, “incremental changes and long processes of continual improvements….The incrementalist vision suggests that the best advice one can give about innovation is this: Take care, pay attention, and do your job.

This is why, often, maintainers are the most trustworthy innovators. They have the deep knowledge and sense of responsibility that is needed to lead wise innovation. They have a respect for relationships and best practices, and they know where real change is needed. 

We might suppose that this is just as true in statecraft as it is in technology, science, or home repair. In his chapter on Edmund Burke in The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk wrote, “The perceptive reformer combines an ability to reform with a disposition to preserve; the man who loves change is wholly disqualified, from his lust, to be the agent of change.” Decent reforms tend to come from a place of understanding and appreciating the “permanent things” that need to be conserved, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot that was popularized by Kirk. This is an argument for conservatism, not as an ideology but as a propensity to maintain the enduring values that make society livable, civil, and decent. 

Vinsel and Russell do not write from a “conservative” point of view in any political sense. Rather, they posit that maintenance transcends political dividing lines. Indeed, Vinsel and Russell find “that partisan politics and identities fall to the wayside when people give themselves and one another some space to talk about maintenance and repair. These subjects are more engaging, more urgent, and more promising than the clickbait political issues of the day.” 

The arguments in The Innovation Delusion ought to resonate with Americans who aspire to maintain the humane traditions of our free society. As writer Grace Olmstead is quoted in The Innovation Delusion, “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.” 

There are also practical implications for our public policy if we focus on maintenance. Vinsel and Russell cite Mierle Laderman Ukeles, artist in residence at the New York Department of Sanitation in the 1970s, who inquired of her generation, “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” The authors also note the work of Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn, who urges policy makers to maintain existing infrastructure before taking on new projects—and new debt. 

In a society where generations of thought leaders have urged us to join their obsession with innovation, we would do well to consider this thorough critique from Vinsel and Russell. 

Hans Zeiger is president of the Jack Miller Center, a nationwide network of political scholars, historians, and civics teachers committed to the teaching of the American political tradition.  

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