03 June 2007

Lost Art of Tinkering

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

When I was child, my grandfather used to regale me with stories about his life in Germany in the early part of the last century, and one of my small and often-overlooked favorites was about the challenge of getting his driver’s license. The story brought up the kind of historical, cultural, and personal incongruities that help make life interesting since, in essence, the demands of the occasion contrasted sharply with the man I knew: to get one’s license in the Germany of that period, it was necessary to know, in great detail, about the inner-workings of your car, the better to maintain and repair it. Although my grandfather, in the late age at which I knew him, loved to tinker with little things, he was in my experience rather rupophobic – making the mental image of him greasing up his hands with car parts still rather shocking. He loved cars, and he passed the test, and whether he was less fussy as a young man or simply realistic about the challenge is something about which I can only guess.

Lately, I have been thinking about this story because I have been struck by how our society seems to be drifting further and further from having any real connectivity to the tools and technologies we use every day. In 1920s Berlin, when my grandfather was toying with cars, they may still have been slightly exotic machines – nowhere near as omnipresent in society as they are now – but they were also more straightforward in construction: internal combustion engines with visible, mechanical parts performing specific, easy-to-understand functions. Nothing like today’s cars, where everything from the timing of the fuel injection, to the force of braking, to the deployment of airbags, is controlled by computer chips. The under-hood experience now couldn’t be more different, and most of us simply could not pass a driver’s test that involved car repair even if we had no fear of getting dirty.

Those in-engine computers are just one element of the dramatic changes of the last 60 years, all in the name of better living through science. And, generally, we do have better lives; the “machines” with which we surround ourselves, now more often digitally-driven rather than mechanical in the old-fashioned sense, help our society manage information, communicate, grow food, cook, develop and deliver new products, shop, and more. I am no Luddite; I definitely see the value of improving technology. However, as the complexity of these technologies increase, so does our general powerlessness. Most of us are helpless in the face of a recalcitrant computer or obstreperous cellphone, to the degree that such helplessness is the butt of many jokes. We may have a standard routine of quasi-fixes – many with startling degrees of success – like rebooting the computer or removing and reinserting the cellphone battery, but we are fundamentally screwed if the problem is more serious; in most cases, we cannot even diagnose the problem, let alone fix it.

Well, that’s what specialists are for. Just as we go to the doctor for an internal pain we cannot diagnose or fix, we rely on the equivalent professional opinion to resolve the problems of our cars, our computers, and more. (Or, sadly, we simply throw them out, given that the cost of such specialized treatment often outweighs that of replacement. It’s likely only a short bit of time before we adopt the same attitude about our bodies, too.) And as with doctors, the more we rely on specialists, the more complicated everything becomes – and the more we remove ourselves from having any ability to make fixes for ourselves.

Maybe this reliance on others is both wholly human and essentially irrelevant. In one way or another, we have always been bound to specialists, from the shaman who claimed exclusive access to the spirits that controlled human health and destiny, to “wet nurses” who breast-fed babies for the mothers who could not, to the butcher, baker, and candle-stick maker (all specialists in their own right), this farming-out of knowledge can encourage innovation and development and increase productivity. If the lawyer bakes her own bread, she might make simple white; buying from the baker means a range of choices that may suit both her tastes and her dietary needs; and when the baker needs a lawyer, he too will probably be better off with his customer’s specialized services than attempting to strike out on his own. What fails the test here is the implicit “could” in each situation: the baker could serve as his own lawyer, the lawyer could be her own baker; it might not be ideal, but it is certainly do-able.

In all likelihood, however, neither the lawyer nor the baker could fix their own microwave oven or television. Again, I am no Luddite and this is no jeremiad against technology. Rather, it is a call for greater dilettantism, a hope that as new technologies come along, all of us who use them will make more of an effort to understand their inner workings, and not take the passive route to greater specialization. To be sure, some of this is (and has been) happening, with “extensions” for web browsers like Firefox, add-ons to search engines like Google, and extra components for software and operating systems like OpenOffice.org and Linux, all being created by committed individuals who use these tools and have found ways to make them work better. Web sites like Lifehacker provide assistance, too, providing tips for novices and experts alike on a variety of topics.

Technology is powerful – but knowledge is power; the more we know, the more control we have. Sometimes we will be able to fix things ourselves, and sometimes we will simply be better prepared to call in that specialist. But without any knowledge whatsoever, in sustaining a learned helplessness about the world, we are not much better than newborn babies, dependent utterly and always.


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