Rob makes a good point about technology and complexity.
The first car I owned was a 1978 Datsun 510. Over the years it started to develop problems starting, and I traced these problems back to a problem with the teeth on the starter motor engaging with the teeth of the engine (so to speak). My solution? To replace the engine side would have required hoists and battering rams. So every three months I just replaced the starter motor.
I would drive over to the auto salvage yard, find the next Datsun 510 with a starter motor, take it off (leaving my own 510 running in the parking lot), quickly drive home, remove the faulty starter and bolt in the new one. Total cost: $35 and a couple of hours.
Cars like the 1978 Datsun 510 were simple enough that anyone, or at least anyone with a tiny bit of daring, could understand them. My confidence in this regard was greatly increased both by my father’s penchant for home car repair, and by How to Keep Your Datsun Alive, a book from John Muir Publications in the same series as the venerable How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. How many other auto repair books, after all, do you know that contain sentences like:
Love of life, love of things mechanical, love of things working as they should, love of our home the earth. If you care, you can do it.
My 2000 VW Jetta is beyond comprehension: open the hood and everything is cloaked inside plastic panels that scream “do not attempt to fix anything without computer assistance.” I’m not even sure if my Jetta even has a starter motor.
Another case in point: I was helping Catherine Hennessey diagnose some computer problems last week. One of her complaints was that text in her word processor kept magically disappearing. After some discussion and forensics work, we traced this back to the following key sequence: Catherine would mistakenly hit Control + A when trying to type Shift + A. As a result the entire text of her document would get selected (Control + A is a keyboard shortcut in Windows for “Select All”). Not noticing this, she would type the next letter of the word, and the word processor would then replace the entire document with that one letter.
In other words, for all intents and purposes because her finger was one key too far to the left, her entire document disappeared. As if by magic.
Catherine’s word processor (WordPerfect for Windows) can help her make tables of contents, indices and legal concordances. It has a spelling dictionary and a thesaurus and it will analyze the grammar of whatever she writes. But it can’t prevent her from easily deleting the fruits of her labours.
As with cars, word processors have become complex Swiss Army Knives. In the original old Orem, Utah, USA WordPerfect — a gentle, empty blue screen ready for typing — this never would have happened. Ye Olde WordPerfect couldn’t bake cookies, but you could change its starter motor.