Apps like Clubhouse celebrate innovation and the innovators while overlooking the vast army of maintainers that allow those systems to run. Other programmes are actively trying to change that conversation and focus on the people and the communities we all rely on to keep the world moving.
I recently joined the audio-only social chat app Clubhouse. In case you’ve escaped the media explosion surrounding it, it’s an app that allows users to start themed chat rooms and host talks which [unless marked private], anyone using the app can then access. In this age of permanent digital footprints, it’s deliberately ephemeral, in that users and speakers can’t record or archive the talks (the app has received some criticism for storing its own copies of recordings, which it says it to allow it to monitor potential abuses of the platform’s policies).
In one of those acts of serendipity, its launch in April 2020 came just as US states and much of the rest of the world was starting to lockdown in the face of Covid-19. It quickly gained popularity amongst the Silicon Valley set, and emerged as a place where innovators, visionaries and thought leaders could chat and shoot the breeze with each other. Although it’s still in a pre-public, invite-only stage, it boasts 10 million users (as of mid-February 2021), an incredible exponential rise from the 1,500 users it had shortly after launch in May 2020.
Join Our Club
One of the big attractions of the app is that users can listen to global business and technology stars like Tesla founder Elon Musk and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, interact with them and ask them questions. It feels democratic in a way that video platforms like Zoom don’t. Social and arts organisations are also embracing the platform, especially as a way to introduce ideas and viewpoints from outside their own disciplines. In Malaysia, prominent entrepreneurs like Tony Fernandes and Khailee Ng are regular presences on the app, hosting lively and often free-wheeling discussions of a type you rarely experience in the laser-like focus of media and conference appearances.
While I enjoy many of the talks – typically ones about subjects I know little to nothing about, hosted by people I’ve never heard of – I can’t help but think that the wisdom of some of the pioneering innovators and self-professed experts on the platform (though not those listed above), is best consumed in tweet and soundbite form, rather than in the context of three-hour meandering roundtables.
No one is denying that we need innovators. Our management of the current pandemic is a tale of the everyday effects of innovation. From the pharmaceutical companies that have developed, manufactured and started to distribute vaccines in record time, to the cloud computing services that allow the lucky ones to work and earn from home, to the domestic jury-rigging of work and study desks from shelves, ironing boards and other household staples. Innovation is changing and reshaping our world.
The Distortion Lens
But that obsession with ingenuity can act as a distortion lens. It ignores the fact that the majority of the technologies and systems running our world are not innovations, and that the majority of labour is focused on keeping those technologies and systems running. Even the tech world, that hub of innovation and disruption, is less novel than it first appears. In a recent podcast I talked about the layer cake of legacy systems that underpin today’s digital infrastructure, coded in languages devised and implemented as much as fifty years ago.
In 2016, Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science and technology and technology historian Andy Russell, then of Stevens Institute of Technology, organised a three-day conference called The Maintainers to bring together activists, technologists, scientists and engineers to discuss the vital, under-appreciated and often difficult tasks that maintaining the world’s infrastructure presents.
That conference, which included talks on the links between delayed or deferred infrastructure maintenance and apparently natural or sudden disasters, has since developed into a research network dedicated to the ‘concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world’. In 2020, Vinsel and Russell co-authored a book, The Innovation Delusion, to argue that ‘our way of thinking about and pursuing innovation has made us poorer, less safe, and—ironically—less innovative’.
While apps like Clubhouse may have provided a safe space for many over the past year, the pandemic has illustrated just how necessary this army of maintainers is. Not just the first responders in our healthcare systems, but the larger army of hospital porters and orderlies that sterilise the buildings and move patients, supplies and decontaminated waste from one place to another. The laundry staff washing linens and scrubs and the catering teams keeping patients and staff nourished.
The delivery drivers who bring food and goods to the front door. The logistics and procurement teams processing those orders. The IT systems engineers ensuring that those ecommerce platforms remain unhacked and online. Not to mention the thousands of traders, transporters and manufacturers that supply those retailers. Millions of people whose responsibility it is to keep their small corner of the chain running, and provide the bedrock services that enable their fellow maintainers, the innovators and innovation to flourish.
It’s too early to tell whether Clubhouse will leave a lasting legacy or fade as the world leaves lockdown, though it’s probably a safe bet that the innovators will move on to something newer and more exciting. Thankfully, there are programmes, like Think City’s recently launched K2K Aktif Bersama, that are actively designed to engage with and empower the maintainers who keep our world running.
Its pilot scheme at the PPR Kg. Baru HICOM community consists of a series of virtual workshops covering issues like mental health awareness, stroke and cancer prevention, waste and composting and other topics designed to empower individuals and create a sense of community. While many of the physical activities, challenges and competition components of the programme are on hold due to current Covid-19 operating guidelines, some activities, like socially-distanced community walks, are being implemented.
In fact, enfranchising and maintaining communities can act as a spur to innovation. By providing residents with support mechanisms, life hacks and community tools, social maintenance programmes can help to create positive mental spaces and allow collaborations within and beyond communities to flourish.
Above all, we can actively change our collective mindsets to one that values the maintainers of our way of life as the true heroes.
The Futurist is a regular column from Matt Armitage.