The Perils of Innovation

Craftsmen, mechanics, gardeners, cooks, and cleaners  —  each of these trades, simple though they seem, keep the world ordered and beautiful.

Over at Aeon mag, Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell write that “innovation” is something we’ve blown out of proportion:

… Contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not. Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?

One consequence of our obsession with innovation is that we constantly create new things, rather than maintaining and treasuring old ones—and often become wrapped up in consumerism, rather than in care.

Take homeownership and home-building in America: on the street my husband and I live on, the little 850 to 1,000 square-foot houses of past decades are being torn down and replaced with massive, sprawling monstrosities. Area developers don’t care that the lot in question is tiny: yard and space to grow things doesn’t matter these days. What matters is square footage—because every extra piece of hardwood and granite squeezed into that house is extra money in the developers’ pockets, while grass gets them nothing.

Yet at the same time, as Felicia Rose writes for Mother Earth News, “Tiny houses, often defined as those under five-hundred square feet, have gained purchase in recent years. Their lure is apparent. In a society of architectural obesity, they represent a clean-limbed leanness (or gauntness).” How do we reconcile this cultural obsession with “obese” houses, alongside growing desire for houses winnowed down to almost nothing?

While one may be worse for the neighborhood, both reflect our societal obsession with the new, the progressive, the “innovative.” There are plenty of old tiny houses throughout America. But most tiny house owners want something that’s still new, exciting, adapted to the latest technologies, and—perhaps most importantly—rootless. Something on wheels. Something that doesn’t require putting down stakes.

A society in love with innovation is a society that, oftentimes, has rejected the idea of limits. There’s no end to our exploring, because we don’t believe that we should stop anywhere. We aren’t content with our old smartphones or computers—we want the latest, newest thing, and expect companies to keep innovating endlessly.

Additionally, we’ve gotten used to spending money to get something fixed, rather than fixing it ourselves. This cultivates ignorance, and can turn us into discarders, rather than maintainers. Cars and houses can always be replaced with newer cars and bigger houses. Old things require a lot of work, tinkering, and upkeep. New things present us with a degree leisure and ease that is difficult to pass up.

But craftsmen, mechanics, gardeners, cooks, and cleaners—each of these trades, simple though they seem, keep the world ordered and beautiful. As Vinsel and Russell write, “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.”

The individual who dedicates his or her life to maintenance and repair is the one who “keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things,” they write. They are the husbandmen and housewives, plumbers and janitors, construction workers and electricians. “Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep.”

Jobs that involve “upkeep” are not highly valued in today’s world. A farmer told me last year that most jobs—like his—that involve manual labor are viewed as blue collar and unintellectual, jobs for the high school dropouts and unambitious. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill and Wall Street and Silicon Valley receive the accolades, the geniuses, and the money. The former are, indeed, “ordinary” vocations in comparison, and rather quotidian forms of existence. But the job of maintaining—the earth, its infrastructure, and its people—is absolutely vital to our wellbeing and flourishing.

In The Unsettling of America, farmer and essayist Wendell Berry shares the memory of an interaction he once had with another farmer:

Several years ago I argued with a friend of mine that we might make money by marketing some inferior lambs. My friend thought for a minute and then he said, “I’m in the business of producing good lambs, and I’m not going to sell any other kind.” He also said that he kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face. The human race has survived by that attitude. It can survive only by that attitude…

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.

It involves an appreciation for the work of creating, but also an acknowledgment that “new” isn’t always better—that there should be a limit and end (both literally and teleologically) to our innovation, because we already have good things worth tending. And even though we won’t make millions doing it, it is the simple task of maintaining that lifts us out of empty consumerism and into the realm of stewardship and care.

This article was originally published in The American Conservative, where you can read more of Gracy’s writing.

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