The year is 1937, a utilitarian loft with creaky floorboards houses rows upon rows of desks upon which rest an inbox an outbox and a typewriter rest. The large windows allow light to stream in, visible in the ambient dust. The clack of hundreds of mechanical keys reverberate the room’s hard surfaces. Women make social security cards by the thousand, manually adding the numbers and information.
It’s hard to argue that we should go back to this as a way of life.
It’s now 2012 and I sit in a comfortable pub with a handful of designer and engineer friends eating greasy chicken and drinking varying shades of amber. We lament the loss of simple mechanical knowledge in people; “Really, people don’t know how to change their own oil? Woah.” but I see both sides of the argument. Why should the common person understand the internal combustion engine? It’s practical, sure, for self diagnosis of developing noises or vibrations and usually more cost effective to fix things yourself but there’s little necessity to these reasons. You can, as many do, live your entire life comfortably without such knowledge.
There’s a good pile of essential design philosophy literature that insists that the world is collapsing because we’re moving into an information age, an age that doesn’t value physical trades like motorcycle repair. That we’re collectively dumber because our German-made cars have plastic covers over the engines with very little insight as to the magic underneath. Shop Class as Soulcraft author Matthew Crawford describes this as a “hood under the hood” with only a few caps for filling fluids, should the consumer be daring enough to even fill those themselves. This is a valid point, and one that we agree on – it makes sense to learn to do minor things yourself for the independence, know-how and often for the simple cost savings of not paying labour. But I disagree on the lamenting of society. Rather, I focus my lament direction slightly elsewhere:
These are books that suggest that a lack of knowledge is a problem, and that people who lack knowledge are dumb and shameful blights on good society. I’m hardly arguing in favor of ignorance, but I want to shift the blame to the cause, not the effect: a lack of curiosity. We in the pub are, as a former mechanical design class, a collection of intensely curious people. People who yearn to know what this bit of metal does or how it works. We’re the people who grew up on How it Works books and videos and absorb it with sponge-like minds because curiosity drives us. Do I know how everything in the world works? Hardly. Are they – the people who know such things – to lament and shame me for not knowing? In their eyes, yes. But I’d argue that my eagerness to learn it is the defining factor.
So instead of writing books about how society is going down the drain because the average person can’t change their own oil we should be writing books about how awesome learning how to do these things can be. About how to be driven and led by natural curiosity for the betterment of oneself. It’s not about the information age, the jobs that get cut will get cut because there simply isn’t a reason to keep menial tasks around explicitly to fill chairs with people; we’ve got grander things to do! It’s not about mechanical programs being cut from schools or a lack of teachers to teach them – try learning to code in high school; same problem – it’s about having nearly infinite access to such topics and having students who realize they can simply learn whatever they’re truly driven towards.
TL;DR A person’s knowledge doesn’t define them as much as their willingness to learn does.
Title photo via.
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