Monday, December 14, 2009

Tinkering and innovation: You can't have one without the other

Last week I blogged about the empty black box of evidence in medicine. Afterwards I got to thinking about black boxes in other parts of our lives in the 21st century -- seems to me they are everywhere and getting more and more prevalent.

To appreciate their proliferation, we must travel back in time to around the middle of the 19th century. I know, it is a bit anxiety-provoking, what no blogging, no tweeting, no iPhones... And yet, let's persist. The landscape is still dominated by small rural communities with farming as the major industry. Around these farming villages some small local businesses are making a successful run: furniture makers, dress makers, healthcare providers. Schools are also local and classrooms are multi-age and co-ed. School day follows the agrarian cycle, allowing the kids to maximize their farm time in every season. Most goods and services are created locally, if not in the home itself. When a shovel breaks, it is fixed. When socks rip, they are darned. When a child is having trouble with homework, she is helped by her parents and siblings. Evening entertainment is provided in the home by family members' stories and the stars in the sky. OK so far?

In comes industrialization. Furniture and dress making are automated, farmers begin to move into cities and schools become more regionalized and no longer need to observe the constraints of the agrarian lifestyle. The second half of the 20th century ushers in unprecedented advances in technology. Instead of fixing our broken shovels, we chuck them and buy new ones. Ditto for socks, cars, computers, couches. We used to be able to look under the hood of our 1967 Dodge Dart and fix the strange rattling noise. We used to bring our shoes to a shoe repair shop to re-sole when necessary. Today we discard the old and buy the new model.

I know what you are thinking: there she goes again railing against consumerism! Well, yes, but that is not where I am going with this. A byproduct of our rampant consumerism is the loss of the art of tinkering. Tinkering is our legacy. What were Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin if not tinkerers? How about Steve Jobs and Michael Dell? How many of us can build or fix a transistor radio? What about next generation life-altering technologies we cannot even conceive of yet?

Along with this loss of tinkering came the ceding of expertise. What I mean is that, since everything today seems infinitely more complicated, the public defers to the expert class, built around the black boxes clearly inaccessible to mere mortals. And guess what is the biggest black box... If you guessed our educational system itself, you are correct. Reading, math and social studies have been taught in the home, then in small school houses, for centuries. (And if you think that farmers did not learn math, think again: you cannot get around a farm without being facile with things mathematical.) Parents used to know how to help their children learn. Now, we defer our children's education to "experts" behind closed doors, who are likely to recommend pharmacologic solutions where individualized approach is needed. And what has this gigantic black box yielded? If you read award-winning secondary school teacher John Taylor Gatto's angry diatribe against our educations system, "Weapons of Mass Instruction", aside from a big headache, you will walk away with the understanding that we are now, as a nation, more cynical and dumber than we were 80, 50, and even 30 years ago. Thanks to experts.

So, we in effect have given away transparency and control over most of our daily lives. Distant industrial farms provide what passes for our food, distant manufacturing plants in China deliver our clothes, furniture, computers. Locked down institutions beyond our inquiry and constructive criticism have a hold on our children for 8 hours each day, and wish to prolong this hold by contracting vacation time to do what? Produce even more pervasive boredom, cynicism and ignorance? Even our entertainment has passed into the black box realm: distant producers selling their advertisers' wares by creating inane and irrelevant "entertainment" for the masses.

People, we are no better informed than our ancestors banging their drums to ward off solar eclipse. Our fancy gadgets separating us from what's under the hood of reality give us a false sense of complacency. If we want true innovation, we need to get back to our tinkering roots. Learn to darn your socks, help your child to read and teach her to tinker, so that she can stay curious. Question "experts": most of the time the mountains of complexity behind their concepts are useless or unnecessary, or created for the purpose of exclusion by obfuscation. Throw open these black boxes and shine a light in them. Play with stuff. Play with ideas. Tinker!              

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