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I work in technology. I write the software that moves machines, that gets embedded in factory equipment and automates the making of things. I’ve been doing it a long time for a man of my (ahem) youth, and I’ve seen a lot of change.
Three decades ago I happened to be the fellow who introduced a particular kind of automation to a then-thriving industry called library conservation. This industry was never large but it was once hugely profitable, a cozy collection of minor magnates whose family fortunes were made binding and re-binding library books, one expensive volume at a time. Part of that profitability stemmed from their habit of meeting each year to fix prices across the industry. Photographs of such meetings, of rooms full of well-dressed, cigar-chomping, portly men of means boldly pushing the bounds of anti-trust law, capture a bit of the flavor of the “age of industry”; no gathering of today’s high tech billionaires would feature so many black ties or gray hairs, nor look so happily, contentedly, gloriously criminal.
That flamboyance eventually attracted federal attention, and the Library Binding Institute became a test case for anti-trust legislation when the government filed suit against them in 1951. That was before my time, of course. It didn’t go well for the LBI, though its members continued printing money (so to speak) for a few more decades – and I knew several of them – before undergoing inevitable consolidation as digital text replaced paper.
When I walked into my first library bindery more than 30 years ago, it was like walking into a factory from the early 20th century. There were still pots of molten lead alloy, tanks of hot cartilage-based glue (remember where old horses go), and every manner of ancient cutter and shear and press. They were loud, dangerous, cluttered places; often the computer I installed to control a new machine was the first computer in the plant. This was the 1980s but would pass for the 1880s if you squinted just a bit.
Some of the machines were already decades old, the manufacturers long extinct, parts impossible to acquire. Inevitably there was an old guy who kept them running through force of will and an encyclopedic memory and an uncanny ability to fashion or adapt whatever replacement part was needed. An old machine would run forever, if it had someone who knew it like his own child and was dedicated to its continued operation. The plant maintenance man was part craftsman, part inventor, part engineer. He was a caretaker, and he kept the plant running.
I occasionally walk into one of those plants today. They aren’t library binders anymore; that era is over. Now they do overnight fulfillment printing for Amazon, on-demand publishing for Blurb or Flickr or any of a number of boutique or professional presses. The hot lead is gone, replaced by $4 million HP digital presses and the kind of robotic book-making equipment my customers – small engineering companies and OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) – pay me to automate.
The caretakers are gone. Sure, there are maintenance people, very competent men (they always seem to be men) who know how to service the machines. But when something breaks they call the vendors – sometimes they call me. No User Serviceable Components Inside is the new reality. We check diagnostics remotely, my customers (those OEMs) ship replacement components along with installation instructions. If the vendors, with their diagnostics and their spare parts, weren’t there the machines would eventually break down and, in most cases, no amount of dedication and intuitive engineering skill would allow even a gifted maintenance man to bring them back to life.
This is true everywhere: increasingly, the world has no place for caretakers.
There was a time when people had televisions, radios, toasters – toasters! – repaired. There was a guy (again, always a guy) who could fix pretty much anything if you left it for a couple of weeks. Common household appliances were made of metal, screwed together with screws that didn’t require special tools to remove. Now my toaster contains at least one microprocessor (a PIC, a very useful little computer that cost pennies and is on its way to becoming the third most ubiquitous man-made thing on the planet). My car contains several, and the garage needs another computer to ask them what’s wrong when something doesn’t work.
It isn’t just stuff. We’ve industrialized the raising of children at every level. Common Core and paperwork crowds out the craftsmanship of primary education, the nurturing by the educator of small unique minds. Where teaching university was once a labor of inspiration, the sharing of an intellectual passion with a small coterie of similarly egg-headed acolytes, it has been democratized, transformed into a bland ritual of forced and banal consensus, thinking replaced with right-thinking and standards pushed down, down, down.
“Innovations” in health care, spurred on by federal demands for electronic medical records and endless compliance with bureaucratic diktats, long ago doomed the family doctor. Today the practitioner is too busy complying with whichever newly mandated “meaningful use” requirements he has to meet to avoid being penalized by the insurance companies to spend more than seven minutes with the patient. There are just too many checkboxes that require his attention, and he still hasn’t figured out how to use the damned touchscreen tablet….
This is progress, all this outsourcing and off-shore manufacturing and modularizing and standardizing and perfecting. It’s progress, of a sort. I’m sure it is. It makes things cheaper. It makes things better, sometimes.
But there was an excellence in the old guy who knew how to keep everything working, an excellence that Amazon’s return policy can’t match. And I wonder what the world will be like, when there’s no one left who knows how to take care of things, of machines and minds and ideas.Published in