Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Caretakers

 

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.

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  1. Flicker Coolidge

    Two Christmases ago my wife bought me an espresso machine. I’d seen it on display for a couple of years and would always say, “I’d pay [ten percent of the price] for that,” because that was all it was worth. That was the machine that my wife ordered from Macy’s. I was aghast. It cost as much as a used car (I buy cheap used cars). And she violated one of my most vehement commands for when buying me a gift: No CHIPS. Nothing with a chip in it. They just never work out right.

    Well, I didn’t want to disappoint her so for the next year I used it, and the coffee was 10% better than the cheap machines we had at the time. Then one day the chip went out. The lights turned on, but the temperature read 500 degrees, and when I pushed the Two Cups button, the lights flashed and the pump never went on. The machine must weigh fifty pounds and it just isn’t worth it to pay a third it’s original price for shipping and repairs to have it fixed for another year’s service. So it sits in the back of a cabinet.

    I hate chips. I could have repaired anything but a chip. It still looks pretty though.

    • #1
    • June 22, 2020, at 10:41 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This is a wonderful post, full of up-close knowledge and big picture understanding of what it means, what we’re in the process of losing.

    The intersection of changing technology and social/political changes: it takes expertise in both to write about them both, convincingly. Great job, man. 

    • #2
    • June 22, 2020, at 10:54 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  3. Annefy Member

    Of late I’ve been thinking of one of S King’s books in The Dark Tower series. I think it’s Wizard and Glass. People are surrounded by machines that they don’t know how to use. Old oil derricks (is that what they’re called? The machines that went up and down. My neighborhood had many) continue to blindly pump with no purpose. 

    While I too lament things being fixable, and miss the guy who could fix those things, I think it’s the willful distruction I see reported everyday that is reminding me of that book 

    • #3
    • June 23, 2020, at 1:12 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    C’mon: chips are a miracle. But in certain applications, they are an obstacle. Here’s an example: car restoration.

    I’m a car guy. I even like some of the fresher Detroit designs of the much-despised Eighties. The electronics that by then were permeating car powertrains made them run cleaner, use less fuel, and deliver more power per cubic inch. But unlike commonly sourced hose clamps or Torx screws, the ICs of these Rivieras, Reattas, Merkurs and Shadows are essentially irreplaceable. They can be manufactured again, sure, at great expense, and some are salvageable from junkers. But unlike a throttle body assembly, it’s hard to make just one. 

    This strikes me as an eminently solvable problem once custom PROM burning meets cheap, reliable auto-copying of manufacturer-supplied documentation. At a certain price it can happen, like custom book publishing. 

    • #4
    • June 23, 2020, at 1:25 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  5. The Reticulator Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This is a wonderful post, full of up-close knowledge and big picture understanding of what it means, what we’re in the process of losing.

    The intersection of changing technology and social/political changes: it takes expertise in both to write about them both, convincingly. Great job, man.

    Yup. I didn’t know Mr. Racette could write from a perspective like this. It’s great.

    • #5
    • June 23, 2020, at 5:43 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Great post. This would make an excellent topic for a thoughtful documentary.

    • #6
    • June 23, 2020, at 5:55 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  7. The Reticulator Member

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Great post. This would make an excellent topic for a thoughtful documentary.

    No, no, no! A thousand times no! You’re interfering with the campaign to stamp out documentaries and make them utterly and deservedly repugnant to people.

    A book, on the other hand, would be good.

    In the meantime, we can all go to the antidocumentary rally next week. Bring your bricks, pitchforks, and flammables.

    • #7
    • June 23, 2020, at 6:09 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Richard Fulmer Member

    Back in 1981, Tracy Kidder wrote, The Soul of a New Machine, about the design and rollout of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 computer. According to Kidder, it was the last computer than a single person could fully comprehend.

    • #8
    • June 23, 2020, at 6:17 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  9. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette

    Richard Fulmer (View Comment):

    Back in 1981, Tracy Kidder wrote, The Soul of a New Machine, about the design and rollout of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 computer. According to Kidder, it was the last computer than a single person could fully comprehend.

    It was a good book. I’ve occasionally said of myself that I have the soul of an old machine, thinking as I did of those old machines that keep going forever so long as they get a specific kind of diligent attention.

    I’m probably not easy to live with.

    • #9
    • June 23, 2020, at 6:46 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  10. The Reticulator Member

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Richard Fulmer (View Comment):

    Back in 1981, Tracy Kidder wrote, The Soul of a New Machine, about the design and rollout of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 computer. According to Kidder, it was the last computer than a single person could fully comprehend.

    It was a good book. I’ve occasionally said of myself that I have the soul of an old machine, thinking as I did of those old machines that keep going forever so long as they get a specific kind of diligent attention.

    I’m probably not easy to live with.

    I read the book when Data General and Perkin-Elmer were competing with Digital in the mini computer business. We had one of the first DEC VAX-11/780 computers in Michigan. Some of those VAXes have been known to run for several years without a reboot. 

    • #10
    • June 23, 2020, at 7:06 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Locke On Member

    For a long time I was able to do many mechanical repairs and small projects with hardware that I’d stripped from dead appliances and gadgets before they hit the dumpster. No more. Forget ‘no user serviceable parts’, now there are often no ‘user salvageable parts’ either. I’m having to (gasp) buy hardware as my stash from several decades of scrapping burns down.

    • #11
    • June 23, 2020, at 7:42 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  12. Full Size Tabby Member

    Another story from the printing industry. I worked (as a lawyer) for one of the large copier / digital printer companies as the company was trying to get offset print shops to start buying digital printers so they could short print runs and customized pages. As you recount the presence of those $4 million digital presses, that has now happened, but it took a while.

    I was told by some of the front line marketers and sales people that one of the big obstacles (from my employer’s view) to introducing digital presses in print shop was the attitude by the operators of the offset presses. Those operators had lots of what you call the “caretaker” attitude – the offset press was a finely tuned machine that they were used to caring for, maintaining, and tweaking when they heard the slightest unusual noise. If something went wrong, they knew immediately where the fault was, fixed it, and had it running again in 30 minutes. 

    In contrast, my employer was used to selling office photocopiers and digital printers to copy centers in large organizations (large companies, governments, universities) and “quick print” shops. The operators in those centers had only minimal understanding of the photocopiers and digital printers that my employer made and sold to them. My employer’s competitive advantage in that market was an industry-leading field service force that could be on the customer’s site and repair the machine in just a few hours. The customer (and the machine operators) did not need to know much about the machine. If something went wrong, just call the field service technician, and they’d be back up and running in a few hours. Totally worked for the existing customer base.

    That approach was totally unacceptable to the press operators who kept offset presses running. The offset press operators expected to be able to do more to prevent breakages, and to fix breakages themselves immediately. They would not accept having to wait for a manufacturer’s field service technician to get their machine (and it was in their minds “their” machine) up and running again.

    • #12
    • June 23, 2020, at 10:36 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  13. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    Another story from the printing industry. I worked (as a lawyer) for one of the large copier / digital printer companies as the company was trying to get offset print shops to start buying digital printers so they could short print runs and customized pages. As you recount the presence of those $4 million digital presses, that has now happened, but it took a while.

    I was told by some of the front line marketers and sales people that one of the big obstacles (from my employer’s view) to introducing digital presses in print shop was the attitude by the operators of the offset presses. Those operators had lots of what you call the “caretaker” attitude – the offset press was a finely tuned machine that they were used to caring for, maintaining, and tweaking when they heard the slightest unusual noise. If something went wrong, they knew immediately where the fault was, fixed it, and had it running again in 30 minutes.

    In contrast, my employer was used to selling office photocopiers and digital printers to copy centers in large organizations (large companies, governments, universities) and “quick print” shops. The operators in those centers had only minimal understanding of the photocopiers and digital printers that my employer made and sold to them. My employer’s competitive advantage in that market was an industry-leading field service force that could be on the customer’s site and repair the machine in just a few hours. The customer (and the machine operators) did not need to know much about the machine. If something went wrong, just call the field service technician, and they’d be back up and running in a few hours. Totally worked for the existing customer base.

    That approach was totally unacceptable to the press operators who kept offset presses running. The offset press operators expected to be able to do more to prevent breakages, and to fix breakages themselves immediately. They would not accept having to wait for a manufacturer’s field service technician to get their machine (and it was in their minds “their” machine) up and running again.

    Yes. The factory shift-work environment and mindset are different from those in the professional world. In the plants, workers often don’t have something else to do when the press stops. When a machine goes down a manager has to decide whether or not to send fifty or a hundred workers home and cancel the second shift, and maybe the third as well.

    • #13
    • June 23, 2020, at 10:44 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  14. Doug Kimball Thatcher

    I enjoyed this essay, Hank. We’ve been lamenting the throw away society for a while. It was, of course, inevitable, that the evolved, layers of technology would eventually surpass one man’s abilities. But there is still satisfaction to be gained diagnosing and replacing a suspect component, even if its repair is not feasible. I proudly keep my small fleet of old vehicles running and working. I recently had to replace the small motored control unit that opens and closes the various heat and cooling channels in my oldest daughter’s Pilot. I ordered a used part from ebay for next to nothing and installed it myself under the dash. This year alone, I’ve replaced rotted channel mouldings, electric window controls, locks, DVD changers, windshield wiper fluid pumps, radiators, door struts, O2 sensors, plugs, distributor caps, wires. It’s all pretty simple. I actually own one of those auto diagnostic computers. But my best friend is Youtube. There is a video of just about any sort of repair.

    By the way, those multiple CD changers (now obsolete) are quite a feat of electronic and mechanical engineering. I tried to repair the unit in my wife’s Odyssey, a problem for someone who lacks a surgeon’s fine motor control and is grossly farsighted. Rebuilt ones can be had for beans, so check the internet when yours dies its inevitable death when overstuffed with Harry Potter.

     

     

     

    • #14
    • June 23, 2020, at 12:36 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  15. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette

    Henry Racette: The plant maintenance man was part craftsman, part inventor, part engineer.

    Editors. I wrote this line as:

    The plant maintenance man was half craftsman, half inventor, half engineer.

    An editor — and I never know which one — apparently took exception with my apparent innumeracy and “fixed” it for me. But I was trying to convey the idea that the gentleman in question was engaged in an endeavor that required something more than simple competence, something more than adequacy: there was art in what he did, something that comes only with time and dedication and necessity.

    That’s the way it is with people who have serious responsibilities and lack the luxury of having someone else to call upon. They have to figure it out for themselves, find a solution, make do.

    Read Little House on the Prairie, the part where it describes how the father shaves the floor of the little house he built by taking a sharp axe and gliding it over the boards (which he also split, himself, from the tree he chopped down, himself). Then, when he’s finished that, he builds a front door with a clever latch mechanism, all without nails, or hardware.

    Kind of makes you want to stand up to the pompous dummies throwing the temper tantrums right now, doesn’t it?

    • #15
    • June 23, 2020, at 6:23 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  16. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    When I was a kid, a friend of mine and I would take my red wagon out on Saturdays looking for TVs and radios that people had left by the curb to be picked up as garbage. Garbage! A television set! To a tech-minded nine year old, it sounded like insanity. We didn’t often score a TV set, none that worked, but I did find plenty of working “tube” AM radios, many of them from the final waves of wooden table radios, some of them with shortwave. 

    I clipped resistors and capacitors from the chassis of all the “dead” ones, and scotch-taped them to looseleaf paper. When I got around to it I wrote out the decoded values. So I had my own “store” of parts to make simple radios and gadgets, though a very incomplete one. 

    Later I “graduated” to shopping at the many junk shops of NYC’s Radio Row, once on Courtlandt Street until it was vacated to build the World Trade Center, then on Canal Street. It was paradise for experimenters. 

    • #16
    • June 23, 2020, at 6:46 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  17. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Henry, this is a beautiful and bittersweet essay. We also had a man who could fix nearly any electrical or (non computer) electronic thing in existence up until about 10 years ago. We haven’t been able to replace him. Living in a 119 year-old house, with much of the original “stuff” intact, it’s a waiting game against entropy. If my husband can’t fix it–he’s quite a craftsman, too, but not at the level of the people who did the internal (and external) woodwork, glasswork, and metalwork in this house–there isn’t anyone to call. When it goes, I’m not sure what we’ll do, as those wonderful caretaker/repair/craftsmen are in retirement or worse. Our lovely historic district, incidentally (or not), is surrounded by freshly minted, incredibly ugly, overpriced, underbuilt condos that sell for twice what we paid for our house and are half the square footage or less. Sad, sad, sad. The “kids” apparently absorbed Soviet style taste in architecture along with their politics when they were in college.

    • #17
    • June 23, 2020, at 7:10 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  18. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    Unfortunately, it appears that a throw away society pretty much dictates that people themselves are throw away. Humans own bodies that are precious in their intricacies. Those intricacies demand that time spent in a doctor’s office revolve around the doctor taking an intense interest in their patient. Corporate America has put up obstacles to that relationship.

    One hundred years ago, doctors were doctors because they had a keen interest in human anatomy, how it worked and how one component interacted with another. They worked within a community of human beings who were their patients. They visited their patients in their homes. The doctor heard little Sally’s cough through the stethoscope and realized that obviously, it might be related to the fact that the family heated her bedroom with a kerosene heater. The same doctor knew how Sally’s dad worked with adhesives, so when he developed a strange malady or two, the good doc might stop to think about what the effect those chemicals would be having on the man’s health.

    If a patient ended up at the clinic, the doctor physically examined the body, even probing and pushing various organs around with trained hands, and would listen to the patient describe their symptoms. Then being well trained in specifics relating to common ailments, the professional could immediately diagnose appendicitis.

    The current crop of doctors leaves medical school having spent far more time learning about prescription medicines than anatomy and ailments. And perhaps it would not matter if they were better informed – I am hearing it’s not possible for some ER doctors to mention any diagnosis unless it is confirmed by a test or series of tests. The old time-y practitioner from 100 years ago would be amazed as to advances we have made with regards to understanding the human body. The brain’s anatomy has been charted and inter related to the nervous system. On the cellular level, there is a much larger body of knowledge of how various types of cells interact with each other in the blood stream or in various organs like the stomach.

    The old time-y professional would be miffed that these days, a patient must wait 6 weeks to see a doctor. Then that visit might allow the patient only 6 to 8 minutes of the doctor’s time. He or she would be flummoxed any health worker could expect to do a good job without asking the patient about their complete health history, and inquiring into various things, like is there extra stress due to family situations or work problems? But then, in less than 8 minutes, how many questions can a physician ask?

    That dr from days of old would leave the modern clinic wondering how it is that we have gained this incredible knowledge relating to the human body & medicine, but then lost every ounce of common sense that was once the main reason people survived to the age of 60 or 70, if lucky.

    • #18
    • June 23, 2020, at 8:47 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Full Size Tabby Member

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Henry Racette: The plant maintenance man was part craftsman, part inventor, part engineer.

    Editors. I wrote this line as:

    The plant maintenance man was half craftsman, half inventor, half engineer.

    An editor — and I never know which one — apparently took exception with my apparent innumeracy and “fixed” it for me. But I was trying to convey the idea that the gentleman in question was engaged in an endeavor that required something more than simple competence, something more than adequacy: there was art in what he did, something that comes only with time and dedication and necessity.

    Or you were riffing off the Car Talk radio show and its weekly “third half of the show” schtick. (-:

    • #19
    • June 24, 2020, at 6:50 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Peter Gøthgen Member
    Peter Gøthgen Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    There was a first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Symbiosis”. At the beginning, the Enterprise encounters a damaged ship. They use their advanced sensors to tell the crew exactly what part of their ship they need to fix. The captain of that ship responds “Ok. How do we do that?” The Enterprise crew are appalled that the people are unable to repair their own ship.*

    As an Apple user since the early 80s, I am simultaneously appalled at how nearly impossible it is to repair any current Apple technology, and happy at how much more reliable they have become. Sure, I could strip my old PowerBook G3 or PowerBook 1400cs down to their parts in 4 minutes flat, but that was partially from the experience of having had to do so quite often.

    When I eventually buy my next MacBook, everything from RAM to storage will be soldered onto the motherboard. This allows them to save on size and weight, but laptops are already a lot lighter than they were. Inevitably, though, any review of a MacBook will feature some pantywaist complaining about having to put 4 pounds in their backpack. This means that since I keep my machines going for 5-7 years (and I don’t trust any data that does not have a local copy), that I’m going to have to spend close to $4k just to get something that will last me during that time.

    It’s another one of the ways in which the loss of self-sufficiency means a loss of freedom. We don’t own something, we rent the ability to use it, and expect others to deal with it when things go wrong.

    * As an interesting aside, the captain of that ship was played by Merritt Butrick, who had previously played Kirk’s son in Wrath of Khan; the episode also guest starred Judson Scott, who had played Khan’s second-in-command.

    • #20
    • June 24, 2020, at 7:47 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. The Reticulator Member

    Peter Gøthgen (View Comment):
    Inevitably, though, any review of a MacBook will feature some pantywaist complaining about having to put 4 pounds in their backpack.

    I don’t blame them for complaining. I had a Dell XPS 15 for about 1 year before I decided that 4.5 lbs was far too heavy for travel. I now have Lenovo Carbon X1 that weighs 2.6 lbs. I think it’s even lighter than the HP Folio 13 that I had for many years, and liked very much. If I had known there wasn’t going to be much travel this year, I might have held off in the hope of something even lighter coming along, but I like this one. (I also have a desktop computer that I put together from separate parts. But I mostly use the Lenovo.)

    • #21
    • June 24, 2020, at 8:55 AM PDT
    • Like
  22. Ammo.com Member

    There’s almost certainly a large unclaimed market opportunity in the area of hardware modularity. Most of the recent examples of failure can be chalked up to an over-reliance on modularity as a selling point. They’ve effectively and quite expensively proven that modularity alone is not enough to sell a substandard product. It’s also probably the case that a public company has too many requirements and pressures to ever feasibly execute this. And being a private company with no intention of ever going public poses its own challenges for capital investment. 

    • #22
    • June 24, 2020, at 5:34 PM PDT
    • Like