Humans like starting new things much more than taking care of older things. This is true on both an institutional and individual level: it’s more exciting to build a new road than to maintain it; more exciting to lose weight than to keep it off. There’s plenty of short-term pleasure and intrinsic motivation when it comes to pursuing something novel, but the effort to keep up unsexy maintenance on what we’ve already got takes real intent.
My guest today says we’ve lost that intent and need to revive it. His name is Lee Vinsel and he’s a professor of science, technology, and society, the co-founder of The Maintainers, a research network dedicated to the study of maintenance, repair, upkeep, and ordinary work, and the co-author of The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession With the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. Lee and I begin our conversation with how our cultural focus on innovation has come at the expense of attention paid to maintenance and repair, and yet how talking more about innovation hasn’t really led to greater progress. We then get into the way the necessity of maintenance, repair, and caretaking has been neglected in business and government, creating a situation where we keep on building new things without investing in the upkeep of our current infrastructure. From there we turn to the way our all too common neglect of maintenance applies not only to big institutions, but also our personal lives, as in the areas of home ownership and health. We discuss how there’s less incentive these days to repair things in our disposable society where everything is cheap, and stuff is harder to fix, even when we want to. We end our conversation with how we can revive a maintenance mindset in our culture and individual lives.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Why does innovation get the focus, to the detriment of maintenance?
- Innovation vs. innovation-speak
- The difference between progress and innovation
- The ways in which life hasn’t changed much in the last handful of decades
- Why is maintenance neglected?
- The incentivization of short-term gains
- What happened to the higher status of maintenance jobs?
- Why is it so hard to keep our nation’s roads maintained?
- Ownership, right to repair, and the breakability of things
- Getting to a maintenance mindset
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
- The Strategy Paradox
- Google Ngram
- The Boring Decadence of Modern Society
- Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Outsourced Expertise
- Finding Money and Meaning in the Blue Collar Trades
- AoM series on reviving blue collar work
- Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns
- How I Finally Made Flossing a Habit
- 4 Reasons You Should Learn to Repair Your Own Furniture
- Right to Repair Movement
- My interview with Mike Rowe
Connect With Lee
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Humans like starting new things much more than taking care of older things. This is true on both an institutional and individual level. It’s more exciting to build a new road than to maintain an old one; more exciting to lose weight than to keep it off. There’s plenty of short-term pleasure in intrinsic motivation when it comes to pursuing something novel but the effort to keep up unsexy maintenance on what we’ve already got, takes real intent.
My guest today says we’ve lost that intent and need to revive it. His name is Lee Vinsel. He’s a professor of Science, Technology and Society, the co-founder of The Maintainers, which is a research network dedicated to the study of maintenance, repair, upkeep and ordinary work, and the co-author of The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession With the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. Lee and I begin our conversation with how our cultural focus on innovation has come at the expense of attention paid to maintenance and repair and yet how talking more about innovation hasn’t really led to greater progress. We then get into the way the necessity of maintenance, repair and caretaking has been neglected in business and government, creating a situation where we keep building new things without investing in the upkeep of our current infrastructure.
From there, we turn to the way our all too common neglect of maintenance applies not only to big institutions but also our personal lives, as in the areas of home ownership and health. We discuss how there’s less incentive these days to repair things in our disposable society where everything is cheap and stuff is harder to fix, even if you wanna fix that stuff. We end our conversation with how we can revive the maintenance mindset in our culture and individual lives. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/maintenance.
Lee Vinsel, welcome to the show.
Lee Vinsel: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you’ve co-authored a book dedicated to the idea that we need to revive our sense of the importance of maintenance and repair, but you spend the first half of the book arguing that one of the reasons that maintenance has been neglected is that we started spending all of our time thinking about innovation, even though all that emphasis on innovation, ironically, doesn’t actually result in more real innovation. We’ll talk about what this modern overemphasis on innovation looks like here in a minute but to start, when did you first realize that maybe our focus on innovation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
Lee Vinsel: It really came from a frustration with the way people were talking about innovation. I work in universities and university administrators just talk about innovation, innovation, innovation all the time and you also hear it in the business world, especially in the Silicon Valley tech sector. So, for us, it started with just a frustration with how empty the word had become and then only later… My buddy made a joke. So Walter Isaacson’s book, it was called The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created a Digital Revolution. That book came out and my buddy, Andy, who I wrote the book with, said, “We should write a counter-volume which would be called The Maintainers; How bureaucrats, standards engineers and introverts create technologies that kind of work most of the time.” And we played with that online, on Twitter and blog posts, and stuff, and it just took on a life of its own. And then it was through exploring that dichotomy between the way people are talking about innovation and maintenance and repair that we started to see that the way we talk about innovation has these dark sides. So I wouldn’t say it was an immediate insight, it really came over time from thinking about these issues.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this idea about the way we talk about innovation at universities and businesses, even in the government. In the book, you made this point, it’s important to distinguish between actual innovation and innovation speak. What’s the difference been the two?
Lee Vinsel: So actual innovation is the process of introducing new things or new processes, new business models, things like that, and one of the reasons we wanna make this distinction is because we think innovation is really important. Human life has really changed over the last 150 or 200 years with the rise of all these technologies like electricity and computing, and we can go on and on, but innovation speak… Even our use of the word innovation didn’t really start until after World War II and not only that… So we wanted… So what I wanna say, this way we talk about innovation has a history and if you look at… Some people argue that actual innovation slowed down since about 1970 or so and yet we’ve been talking about innovation more and more. And so it’s not clear that talking about innovation’s actually getting us innovation. And so that’s one reason why this distinction is really important, is to be clear that the kind of talk and hype is different from the thing and just to be very clear about that.
Brett McKay: Well, some of the stuff you hear today about innovation speak is like, “We’re gonna innovate” or “We’re gonna disrupt.” That’s the kind of stuff you hear and you’re like, “What does that actually mean?”
Lee Vinsel: Disruption is one of these things that started off with a very narrow, precise meeting in the early 1990s and then it just becomes this hot buzzword that people throw around that has no meaning, basically. And there’s lots of other ones like agile and lean, all kinds of… Innovation, social innovation, social entrepreneurship. There’s just this huge bag of buzzwords. Design thinking, of course.
Brett McKay: Design thinking, design thinking. That’s another one. Well, I think you make this interesting point of the history of this innovation speak and the way we talk about innovation. Before World War II, people didn’t use the word innovate when they talked about technology. They use the word progress. And when you hear progress, you think, “Okay, things get better, our life gets better.” And you and your co-author make this case that, “Yeah, before World War II, the technological advancements that we made, a lot of them, they brought progress. They brought us out of poverty and increased health, etcetera.”
Lee Vinsel: There’s a tool that your listeners can play around with called Google Ngram. It’s N-G-R-A-M. It allows you to track word use over time. It’s just fun to throw in there like peanut butter and jelly or whatever and see when people started talking about that. But if you throw in progress in there, you can see that our use of the word progress actually starts going down in the late 1960s. That’s the time of Nixon and the Vietnam War, and there’s all these environmental problems and the economy is in the garbage. And people lost faith in progress, moral progress that our society was getting better and better, and innovation almost becomes a substitution word. It’s not saying that society is gonna progress necessarily. It’s like technology is going to get better and somehow, that’s gonna save us.
Brett McKay: Right. So, there’s been a decoupling between actual innovation and human progress. Before, you get electricity, that changes people’s lives, or indoor plumbing or antibiotics. That’s a game changer. But now, it’s like, okay, you have a new app on your smartphone, does it really make that much of a difference?
Lee Vinsel: Totally, yeah, and you see all these firms like Uber and Peloton and WeWork. And there’s so many firms right now that are struggling to be profitable and they’re often app-driven things, and they’re just not that big of a benefit to human life. They smooth out some things. They make some things more convenient, but it’s not electricity, it’s not the automobile, it’s not modern chemicals or whatever. It’s not that big.
Brett McKay: But what happened? Why was there a decoupling right around the 1960s of technological innovation and what we call progress, like our lives getting better? What do you think happened?
Lee Vinsel: So, there’s huge debates in economics and history about this issue right now. My take is that, one way to put it is that we plucked all the low-hanging fruit in technology and some of the biggest changes in technology were… And this is where with the economist, Robert Gordon argues. They came between 1870 and 1970. So, you’re talking about the car, electricity, the airlines, chemicals, electronics industries, early computing, all these things, right? And then, after 1970 or 1980, those things are not improving that rapidly. So, when we talk about innovation, a lot of times, we’re talking about cellphones and the Internet. And I would never say that, right now, you and I are talking over Skype and doing this interview remotely and in higher ed today, ’cause of COVID, we’re running our classes over Zoom or whatever.
I would never say that those things have not had some effect but it’s a very narrow band of human life and then, your toilet hasn’t improved that much over the last 50 years or whatever. There’s a lot of areas in human life where things are pretty set and mature, and I think that’s the issue is that there’s a lot of parts of our life that just haven’t been changing that rapidly.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think I’ve heard this thought experiment. People ask hypothetical like, “Would you rather give up your iPad and your Internet-connected devices or indoor plumbing, electricity and antibiotics?”
Lee Vinsel: Concrete.
Brett McKay: Concrete, right.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I would be fine without pretty much all the tech inventions from 2000 and on. I’d be okay if I didn’t have it.
Lee Vinsel: I mean like Slack is nice to do business work over with and even though… We can also talk about how a lot of these things are also distractions and actually interrupt our work, too. So, they’re not always wins but it’s not that big of an improvement over email or the kinds of things we had in the 90s.
Brett McKay: Another point you guys make is that, well, we want innovation like ’cause we have this idea that new is better but not necessarily. And so, as a result, there’s been these industries that have built up. They’re like innovation industries where they sell you the idea of innovation. Walk us through some of these businesses that have grown up to sell us the idea of innovation.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah. So, we highlight three in the book. I’ll start with Clayton Christensen. He was a Harvard Business School professor. He died a year or two ago now, and he’s the guy who came up with the idea of disruptive innovation or, at least, the term. He actually borrowed the idea from an earlier economist. And the idea of disruption is that some new innovation is going to blow an existing industry or technology out of the water. Now, we have Netflix and the only remaining blockbuster you can rent from Airbnb and sleep in it or something like that. And so, Christensen had a consulting firm called Innosight where I guess they put innovation goggles on you, that you could hire in to either teach you to be a disruptor or teach you to avoid being disrupted, I guess. And he made a lot of money off of that consulting group.
And then, we also talk about Richard Florida, who’s the guy who created the notion of Creative Class. He’s made a lot of money off of, basically, cities hiring him and his firm to come in and make their places more appealing to hipsters and creative types who were supposed to create economic growth. Then, there’s the Design Thinking IDEO Stanford d.school folks who promised to make you more innovative but don’t really have any evidence for it. And I should say that part of the issue is Christensen’s ideas actually don’t hold up to social scientific analysis. This notion of disruption just doesn’t hold any water.
So, part of what we’re trying to argue is that because we want innovation and because it makes profit for companies and because it makes growth for nations and governments, it creates the space for people to claim they’re experts that could give you some solution, that could come and make you more innovative or make us all create more innovations. So, it creates a consulting space and they have incentives to not really be honest with us about their ideas and how effective they are.
Brett McKay: And a lot of this innovation is like… Well, that’s interesting that you talk about the point that innovation actually happens but when it does happen, it usually happens slowly and often accidentally serendipitous. You can’t plan for innovation. It’s hard to.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah. I’m enough of a progressive professor, stereotypical in that way, where I’d like… I want the government to spend money on scientific research ’cause I think that leads downstream to actual innovations that benefit our life but, this is a place where I actually think there is something to conservative and libertarian arguments where you can’t really steer this stuff. It’s like you can’t plan it in a way. And I think that’s part of the problem with these innovation consultants, is they wanna give you a recipe for how to produce innovation, and it just doesn’t work that way.
Brett McKay: And so all this time, while we’ve been spending money and time and energy and thinking about how to be more innovative, and these innovations that we come up with, they’re not that great at best, we get email, Slack, which can help things a little… Email has helped a lot. Slack, not so much. And then you have things like the Juicero, which you talk about.
Lee Vinsel: Right. There’s a new Juicero. There’s one now for tortillas, like homemade tortillas, and there’s one… There’s like a cocktail Juicero. So instead of making your own cocktails, which I think is a manly thing to do, you’re supposed to use this gadget to just have it do it for you.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, for those who don’t know the Juicero, it’s a smart juicing thing where you have to buy these pouches with juice in it. Well, its kind of pulpy juice and then the Juicero squeezes it because you push a button on your smartphone, and I guess people realize you could just squeeze the stuff out with your hands out of the pouch.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah, you could just cut the thing open with scissors and squeeze it out, and the machine wasn’t doing that much.
Brett McKay: So yeah, the innovation speaks can get you innovations like that, which aren’t very useful. So all this time, we’ve been thinking about how to be innovative. We’ve… You made the case. We’ve been neglecting maintenance. What do you think is going on there? Let’s talk about maintenance in the first place. You make the case in the book that maintenance it’s necessary, but it’s often neglected. And this isn’t new. This has been a problem for most of human history. How far back do we know that people have had problems with maintenance?
Lee Vinsel: Oh, all the way back. We talked to the historian, Pam Long, and she’s a historian of the middle ages and the ancient world, and she says that in Rome, in the 14th or 15th century, it’s just absolutely awful. There was no maintenance going on. And there’s lots of other examples of failing sewer systems in ancient Rome and stuff. So maintenance has always been a problem, as you say.
Brett McKay: And how has it become more of a problem in the 20th and 21st centuries?
Lee Vinsel: There’s a number of areas of life we can talk about. I think the high theme here is that there’s a lot of incentives these days for short-term thinking. So in the corporate sector, for instance, there’s a lot of emphasis put on the quarterly report, and for producing short-term growth, and to boost stock prices and such. Well, that is gonna lead you to put a lot of emphasis on creating the new thing that’s gonna get that extra boost and distract you from keeping going, the things that are already there. And we see the same thing in government. So our federal infrastructure programs are aimed to get money to localities to build roads and such, but then, there’s no federal money for maintenance, and what the localities are doing is signing on to maintain those things forever or until they wanna put the road to bed.
And they don’t have the tax money to do that, so they have the short-term incentive to take the federal money to build the thing. That’s awesome and everyone can stand in front of it and take a pretty picture and cut a ribbon or whatever. But then, they’re not considering the down term… The down road cost of it.
Brett McKay: Well, so another interesting point you made in the book was, at the 19th century, like the railroad tycoons, they actually kind of figured out that maintenance was an important part of their business operation, and they had to invest a lot, and they actually built up an infrastructure for maintenance, and they actually… Maintainers, people who’d maintain that. That was not high status, but it came with, it was well paid and it was well-regarded. But then, slowly into the 20th century, maintenance or the maintenance professions were seen as a dead end work. What do you think happened there from the 19th century to the 20th century where maintenance or being involved in maintenance work was seen as just not something to aspire to?
Lee Vinsel: Yeah, well, part of it is that we look at the status that is associated with work is part of our argument. And something that happens is, as technologies age, they go down in terms of social status. So in the 19th century, it was a high status to be a mechanic or an electrician. Those were both things that you would do as an aspiring young person who wanted to move up in the world. Well, obviously, that’s not how we talk about those trades now. Socially, we judge those as the trades, and they’re for people in quotation marks “Who aren’t college material” or whatever. This is not how I think about it. That’s how people talk about it. And so, as technologies age, the status of working on them tends to go down. And we see that actually happening with coding and computer work right now. So they’re becoming more blue collar like, and eventually, you might not even need to go to college to do them. So I think that this is one dynamic, and to answer your question is, as the things get older, the status of working on them declines.
Brett McKay: Let’s go back to this idea of where we’re having problems with maintenance. You mentioned roads, and I thought this was really interesting because in the US, we’re always talking about the poor state of our infrastructure. It’s always sort of like a platform for both whatever politician, whatever side of the spectrum they’re on. Roads are bad, bridges are crumbling. And I mean, I really don’t understand what’s going on there, and as you said before, what happened is, the federal government subsidizes federal highways, but then passes it on to the states and the local municipalities to maintain the roads. I guess the problem is, when these local governments decide to take on these new roads or new bridges, why don’t they think about the maintenance cost? Why don’t they think about, “Oh, we’re gonna get this free bridge, basically.” But they don’t think about, “And then we gonna have to pay for it 30, 40 years down the line.”
Lee Vinsel: I think because they’re not required to. I mean, it’s basically free money they’re getting from the federal government or very, very low interest loans. And they’re not required to show that… That they can handle the cost down the line. So the incentives are directly aligned for them taking the money and then dealing with it later. And they won’t even be in office when… Or around, when it becomes a problem, like 20 or 30 years down the road, so I think it’s about incentives, ultimately.
Brett McKay: And then the other problem too is that, maybe they’ve accepted the money when things were great, but then their tax base has been decimated because they’ve lost an industry, ’cause I’m thinking like Rust Belt-type places, where they had all of the car industry and they thought, “Yeah, maybe in 50 years, we’ll be able to maintain it.” But now that the industry is gone, they don’t have the tax base to support the maintenance of the road anymore.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah. I mean, this guy, Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns, who’s really a good person to follow on these issues, I mean, he’s shown and argues that this issue of taking on too much infrastructural debt and not being able to maintain it is a problem in normal healthy communities, but obviously, there’s lots of parts of our country that have depopulated over the last 30 or 40 years. So that becomes an even bigger problem, right? You just don’t even have the tax base to keep going. Then you face really tough questions about how to handle… Repair water systems for a municipality when there’s no money, right? Those are huge questions for our society.
Brett McKay: Well, are there places in the world that you found where they’ve been able to crack this maintenance nut? Were they able to keep their infrastructure? It’s stable, it’s good, it’s in good working order?
Lee Vinsel: It’s funny, we do look at a couple of places in the book. So first of all, you can look like at Japanese high-speed rail systems. They have amazing maintenance. They’ve never had a deadly accident, and their average annual delay is by a minute. The average delay over time is a minute. And you tell that to people on the Northeastern Corridor where they use the train to get from New York to Washington DC or whatever, they’re gonna cry. And then we also look at water maintenance… Water management systems in the Netherlands that are pretty amazing. And they do a good job maintaining. This is how they deal with ocean water. But since the book came out, there’s been a series of articles about the canal systems in Amsterdam and how they’re collapsing. So it’s just like… I think you can find some cultures that are better at it in general, but there’s always exceptions, apparently even the Dutch aren’t good at maintaining some things.
Brett McKay: Well, so one point you make in the book is that in order to solve these maintenance issues, like when stuff’s falling apart, governments, even universities, businesses, the typical solution is, “Okay, we’re gonna grow our way out of it.” Right? “We don’t have money now, maybe if we throw more money at it right now, get bigger, that will solve the problem.” But then you guys make this case that, “Well, growth, yeah, it can solve the problem, but then it just perpetuates the problems you already had before.” Like how so? What’s going on there?
Lee Vinsel: Well, I think there’s two sides of it. The first side is that, in a sense, our infrastructural problem comes from growth? Right? Or the way we use federal money to build infrastructure is a post-World War II thing. And during that time, we’ve grown out the suburbs in our country at an amazing rate, and so we’ve used federal… It’s almost like a bubble of sorts. We’ve used federal money to build up all this infrastructure, now we’re stuck with it. So growth becomes a liability down the road. And I also think growth is just not sustainable as a strategy. It’s not sustainable environmentally for lots of production, but you look at universities today, they wanna deal with everything in terms of growth. Well, every university in the nation is trying to deal with their problems via growth. And you just think about the numbers of students and how there’s actually gonna be declining numbers of college students over the next decade, not everyone’s gonna grow, it’s not realistic. So I think both how growth becomes a liability and it’s not like a realistic long-term strategy, those are the two sides that come to mind right now.
Brett McKay: Right, so as you get bigger, it’s just more stuff to maintain?
Lee Vinsel: Yeah. I mean, that’s part of the history of… We can think of like modern life is that we had the railroads, then we had the telephone system, and we had the electricity system, and then the highways and the road systems, water systems, all these things that make modern life modern life. As we’ve built them up over the last 150 years, they become debts and liabilities that we’re accountable for. So that’s an argument for saying, “We really need to… If we’re gonna build more, we need to think about how we’re gonna pay for it before we do so.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I’ve heard this phrase, this term, I think it’s from that guy, Parkinson, who’s like… He came with Parkinson’s Law, like time fills the space available, or work fills the time available. He also had some other things like, basically, if an organization gets above 1,000, most of the work at that point just goes to maintaining the organization.
Lee Vinsel: That sounds right.
Brett McKay: And not actually doing anything new.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And you can see that… Yeah, you can see that at universities. I mean, look at all the number of deans and administrators, and they’re not… It’s just them, and that’s the problem, and there’s not much teaching going on. I have a friend who’s a professor, and it’s a constant. He carps about it. I get it.
Lee Vinsel: Oh man, it’s so, so true. And you talk about how we’ll saddle students with all this debt in our country, and I think there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that the reason we’ve been raising tuition is ’cause we’ve added this enormous layer of administration.
Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about the problems institutions have with maintenance. So governments, businesses, etcetera, but we also have these same problems of maintenance on the personal level. Like where in our personal lives have you seen people having problems with maintenance?
Lee Vinsel: Boy, I think if you’re a homeowner or a renter, but especially if you’re a homeowner, I think you know the realities of maintenance and how it’s so easy to push it off. So one of the things I did for the book, ’cause I actually bought a house here in Blacksburg, Virginia, when we were working on the book, and I talked to a home inspector, a guy who does inspections for sales, and he was just telling me all kinds of wild stories of like, he climbs on people’s roofs to find if they’re sound or not, and he actually fell part way through one, like a month or two before we had talked. And he said that the scariest thing he sees is when he goes and looks at people’s decks on the back of their houses, and he said so often he just has nightmares that people are gonna have a family party or something and it’s just gonna collapse under too many people, so I mean, I think that’s… We can also talk about what renters experience, but home ownership is a very clear example of where we see this kind of deferred maintenance problem.
Brett McKay: Right, owning a car, same thing.
Lee Vinsel: Totally. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Totally. But even like our health, right? There’s a lot of stuff we should be doing and we know we should be doing sort of preventative maintenance, you go get the yearly check-up to make sure you catch things early, but people are just like, “Yeah.” Especially men, they’re just like, “Yeah, I don’t need that. I can just put that off.”
Lee Vinsel: Right, put the beer gut on, right?
Brett McKay: “Yeah, I’m okay with that, I don’t have to do that.” But then again, you defer the cost, and then when you’re 60 or 70, you have diabetes and all these other health issues that you could have nipped in the bud earlier.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah, like heart disease is a great example of that, right? But yeah, I mean, that’s really where it touches people on them. It’s funny because we write about the nation, we write about organizations, we write about all these different things, but it’s often like the bodily maintenance and thinking about short term rewards of another cookie or another beer or whatever it is, versus exercising and all the long-term thinking, that’s really where it hits people, it’s like, “Oh yeah.” This is an individual level problem as well as a society level one, right?
Brett McKay: And then also on the personal level, and you guys talk about, there was… We had it at a time in our culture this idea of use it up, wear it out, make do, do without, so you could fix stuff, right? If something wore out, you could… Your grandma would darn her socks, grandpa would fix the tractor, but now, because stuff is so cheap, if something breaks, you’re just like, “Well, just go get a new one, buy one at Amazon, will be here the next day, don’t have to worry about fixing it.”
Lee Vinsel: Yeah, and I mean, this is another part of the technological revolution in the last couple of hundred years. I have a lecture called Modernity Equals Cheap Crap that I give most of my classes, and I start the lecture with things just like falling out of people’s closets, or falling out of their garages, about half of American garages are still full of stuff that they can’t be used, to put cars in, and I mean, what this is about is the cheapness of things in our lives. We take that for granted and we don’t really realize how amazing it is, but as a result, it is often cheaper for you to go buy a new toaster than it is to get your toaster fixed, and of course, this has big environmental ramifications, right? ’cause we’re just like, we become a very disposable society.
Brett McKay: Well, the other problem too, is that companies have started to make consumer goods that it’s harder to repair, so like Apple, I think is a prime example of that. It’s like if you wanna replace the battery, you can’t do it yourself anymore, you have to go somewhere and have them replace the battery for you.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah, I was kind of aware of this thing called the Right to Repair Movement, which is fighting companies locking down repair before we wrote the book, but as we wrote the book, I really became a big proponent of it. And so I look up to people like Kyle Wiens of iFixit, the repair site, or Nathan Proctor at US PIRG, these guys are really fighting to pass laws to make our stuff repairable again, but it’s true, it’s become a corporate strategy, but from… It’s John Deere and some auto makers and Apple and a lot of other gadget makers have really tried to make their things not repairable, so that we have to rely on them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you go to them. And then what I mean, this also brings up… This kinda brings up ideas in law of like, what does it mean to own something, do you really own the thing if you can’t fix it, if it breaks down? Or are you just leasing it?
Lee Vinsel: I know. It gets weird, like, are you licensing your phone from Apple? I think this really pushes… In the States, I think this kind of upsets really deep, long-held traditions of autonomy and individualism and stuff that we’ve kind of feel cut off from our things and that we don’t have the right to repair them, that doesn’t fit for us, I think.
Brett McKay: Well, so there’s the problem. We’re not maintaining it. So I think part of the problem is, humans are really bad at thinking about the future, we’re short-term thinkers, don’t think about the long-term, this happens on the micro-level, and then you see it happen on the macro level, you think people will get smarter when you start thinking high level, but they actually get dumber. But then also just our culture has changed, things have gotten cheaper, things are harder to repair, so we’ve lost this ability or this idea of maintenance. So what can we do to get back the maintenance mindset? What do you guys propose at The Maintainers?
Lee Vinsel: Yeah, so we try to boil it down in the book to a couple of ideas. I mean, I think, first of all, for organizations, it really requires leadership and realizing that this stuff is important and valuing it up front, and then it requires a kind of cultural shift, right? We have to get better at this together, especially if we’re talking at the organizational level. And then where we can, we also need to talk about innovation and maintenance, like actual innovation and maintenance, so in the book, we cover companies that are making digital apps and other software mostly to better manage maintenance, whether it’s through predictive analytics and AI or remote sensing and stuff. There’s ways we can get better, both in infrastructural maintenance and in organizations at maintaining things, so we don’t have like a… There’s another genre of book like this where you end with a… A bullet list of policies that you’d like to see put in place, whether in government or businesses, and we didn’t… Chose not to end that way. It’s more of inviting people to the realization that this is important, and then talking and thinking together about how we can improve.
Brett McKay: Yes. Ideas of innovation, helping maintenance. I know, in the oil fields, they’re using drones to check lines to make sure there aren’t any leaks and it’s all AI stuff. So that you can see, “Oh, there’s a leak,” and then they can go and fix it.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah. We have a buddy named Varun who works in basically predictive analytics around gas leaks in natural gas heating-type pipes, and they can use remote sensors and algorithms now to watch things at a distance. So there’s a lot of improvements that can happen. At the same time, I think we’re skeptical that those improvements alone are gonna save us. We’re in such a hole right now when it comes to infrastructure in the States, that it’s not gonna be like through… Innovation alone is not gonna save us. We’re gonna have to kind of get real about where we’re at.
Brett McKay: It’s a mindset you have to take on, right?
Lee Vinsel: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Well, another cultural shift that has to happen is we have to raise the status of maintenance work as well. Like instead of thinking, “Okay, it’s a dead-end job, that’s where you go if you don’t go to college.” Actually, “Hey, these people are an important part of keeping… ” It’s sort of the Mike Roh approach. These are the guys who make civilized life possible.
Lee Vinsel: Yeah. And you can live a pretty good middle-class life in the trades. I think we’ve just really have shot ourselves in the foot by assuming that you have to go to college to have a good life. That’s the way a lot of people talk. It’s not true. And I work in universities, right? It’s in my interest to say, “Yes, come to school.” But the trades are great, but I think that, like you’re saying, we have to rework how we value these jobs and realize that these people are important and they’re giving value to our lives in important ways.
Brett McKay: And I think the big takeaway, I got this from personally from the book, was whenever I buy something now, it’s like, okay, not only thinking about the cost that I had to clunk over to get the thing, I gotta think about what’s the cost of maintaining this thing as well. And I usually don’t do that, but now I’ve been thinking about that and not just in terms of monetary cost, but like bandwidth cost. Where am I gonna put this? What happens when I have to get rid of it? I mean, it’s gonna be a pain in the butt to get rid of. You buy some big thing. I’m starting to think about that stuff now.
Lee Vinsel: Well, that’s great. Andy and I had these realizations as we were working on the book, too, and I think that’s where you end up. It’s like… I’m looking… We have one of these… Kind of dehumidifiers you plug into the wall, right now, in our basement and I’m thinking about buying a built-in one, for a variety of reasons, to put in the basement. But now, I’m doing research, I’m like, “What are the maintenance costs? What am I getting myself into here?” Right? I would have never done that before we worked on this.
Brett McKay: And then also, that causes you to kinda shift away from the growth mindset and thinking, “Okay, more stuff is better.” It’s like, “Well, actually some is more… More isn’t good.” Right?
Lee Vinsel: Right. Yeah. More is more costly and…
Brett McKay: You can make the example, like obesity, like getting fat. At a certain point, fat’s good but at a certain point, it becomes costly.
Lee Vinsel: Yup. That’s a great way to think about it.
Brett McKay: So, yeah, just pare it down, it makes maintenance a lot easier. So where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Lee Vinsel: The easiest way… Place to go is themaintainers.org and we have an email listserv. People can join there. It’s not too many emails and it’s a fun group. And then they can also just reach out to me, I’m [email protected] or Andy’s [email protected] I’m also on Twitter @STS_News.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Lee Vinsel, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Lee Vinsel: Thanks, man. This was fun.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Lee Vinsel. He is the co-author of the book, “The Innovation Delusion.” It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Find out more information about his work at the website, themaintainers.org. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/maintenance where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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