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SundayReview | OPINION

Lets Get Excited About Maintenance!


Its been a bad summer for maintenance, especially in New York. Last month Gov.
Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation
Authority, underscoring a problem that New York subway riders understand all too
well: The M.T.A. relies heavily on emergency repairs because it does not conduct
sufficient preventive upkeep. Likewise, in the wake of two recent derailments that
caused major disruptions, Pennsylvania Station this month closed aging tracks for
repairs and reduced the number of trains serving the station another example of
the costs of neglecting maintenance.

Sadly, the neglect of maintenance is not limited to New York, public transit or
this summer. All varieties of American infrastructure roads, bridges, airports,
sewers are in decrepit condition. Lead poisons the water systems of Flint, Mich.,
and hundreds of other cities and towns across the nation. The American Society of
Civil Engineers considers 17 percent of American dams to be high hazard potential,
including the one outside Oroville, Calif., that nearly collapsed in February.

Why are we in this predicament? One obvious answer is that officials in federal,
state and local government do not allocate the resources necessary for preventive
maintenance. But their inaction is a symptom of a deeper problem, one that is too
seldom discussed: Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of
technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as
mere drudgery.

When Americans talk about technology, they often use innovation as a

shorthand. But innovation refers only to the very early phases of technological
development and use. It also tends to narrow the scope of technology to digital
gadgets of recent vintage: iPhones, social media apps and so on. A more expansive
conception of technology would take into account the diverse array of tools,
including subways and trains, that we humans use to help us reach our goals.

While innovation the social process of introducing new things is important,

most technologies around us are old, and for the smooth functioning of daily life,
maintenance is more important. Statistics are difficult to come by, since American
federal agencies do not account for maintenance costs in a standard way. But in the
computer industry, software maintenance that is, fixing bugs and distributing
upgrades can account for more than 60 percent of total costs. According to one
study, roughly 70 percent of engineers work on maintaining and overseeing existing
things rather than designing new ones.

Its not just maintenance that our society fails to appreciate; its also the
maintainers themselves. We do not grant them high social status or high salaries.
Typically, maintenance is a blue-collar occupation: mechanic, plumber, janitor,
electrician. There are white-collar maintainers (like the I.T. crowd) and white-jacket
maintainers (like dentists). But they, too, are not celebrated like the inventor.

Once you notice this problem innovation is exalted, maintenance devalued

you begin to see it everywhere. The entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk, for
example, announced on Thursday that he had been given verbal government
approval for an underground transportation system between New York and
Washington. He has also proposed a similar project that would revolutionize
transportation in Los Angeles by creating an enormous system of underground
traffic tunnels.
Apart from the practical problem, in Los Angeles, of creating a tunnel system in
a region known for geological instability, Mr. Musks idea indulges a fantasy
common among Silicon Valley types: that the best path forward is to scrap existing
reality and start over from scratch. With urban transport, as with so many other
areas of our mature industrial society, a clean slate is rarely a realistic option. We
need to figure out better ways of preserving, improving and caring for what we have.

Always eager for the photo-op and the exciting new announcement, politicians,
too, prefer creating shiny new things to maintaining old, dingy ones. Mayor Bill de
Blasio of New York is an enthusiastic supporter of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, a
proposed streetcar line that would cost many billions of dollars to build and run. But
a recent report by the Transit Center, a public transportation advocacy group,
estimates that New York City bus service could be greatly improved with relatively
small costs and a few simple fixes like redesigning bus routes giving the city far
more bang for its buck.

Unlike innovation, which has a cottage industry devoted to its study and
cultivation, maintenance is not something we spend a lot of time trying to
understand better. Perhaps if we thought harder about it, we would grant it the
prestige and the funding it deserves.

There is certainly a financial reward to greater understanding: Maintenance is

big business. Giant industrial corporations like General Electric and Boeing make
heavy investments in tools and procedures for predictive maintenance, since their
success depends on the reliability of their products and the existence of orderly
routines to follow when things break down. Even in the digital industries, where the
gospel of innovation is sacrosanct, the kings of disruption Netflix, Amazon
keep their customers happy only through reliable and well-maintained data and
distribution networks.

To shift our focus from innovation to maintenance would also create an

opportunity for greater political consensus. Maintenance is an area of public policy
where conservatives and progressives should see eye to eye. The conservative
tradition asks us to preserve what we have inherited from our ancestors, and the
progressive tradition seeks to provide the greatest good for the greatest number.
What better way to do this than to maintain the technologies bequeathed to us by
past generations, and to recognize and reward the efforts of the maintainers who
keep our society working?

Andrew Russell is a professor of history and the dean of arts and sciences at SUNY
Polytechnic Institute. Lee Vinsel is a professor in the department of science and
technology in society at Virginia Tech.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 23, 2017, on Page SR5 of the New York edition with the
headline: Lets Get Excited About Maintenance!.

2017 The New York Times Company