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Blackbox Lifestyle

Tech types refer to any device that is so highly complex the user can only use it and not service it as a “blackbox.” They are often simple to use but their inner workings are a complete mystery to the user. Much of our American lifestyle is highly dependent upon such blackboxes—so much so that when they malfunction, it is easier and cheaper to throw them away and buy another than to troubleshoot and repair them, even when they cost hundreds of dollars—a concept unthinkable 50 years ago, and a sin 30 years ago. Your cell phone, blu-ray player, and so on are considered disposable by many people.

Many stories in science fiction center around some advanced civilization that has stagnated and is withering away because they are completely dependent upon technology built by their ancestors, but no one remains who understands it or is able to repair it as it wears out.

It has been a concern of mine for many years that our society is moving strongly towards this kind of scenario, and I found out last week that I’m not the only one.

I stumbled across this article because I love pretty much anything Irish, and it is revealing. The author, an American ex-pat married to an Irishwoman and living there examines the rise and fall of the Irish economy in the last ten years or so and compares/contrasts their situation to ours in the States.

Of particular interest, Kaller writes,
“I talk to many people who grew up in Ireland’s poverty, in Europe’s postwar famine, behind the Iron Curtain, or in the Third World. They have seen many crises in their lives—devaluations, coups, civil wars, fuel shortages, and famines—and, yes, it can happen here...The modern world, and the U.S. above all, has had a fortunate stretch of cheap energy, stable climate, skyrocketing wealth, rapidly improving technology, and—since the end of World War II—relative peace between superpowers. This has been enough to make us forget that even citizens of the First World not so long ago lived in largely self-sufficient agrarian communities not very different from those still fresh in minds of the Irish.

Today we have a world that runs on fossil fuels, especially oil…Between them these resources not only move our cars and planes but supply most of our electricity, the plastics that make up our consumer goods, and the fertilizers that grow our food. All that in turn supports other facets of our society: banks, farms, factories, roads, telecommunications, police, and other near necessities. It’s a system that could fail in many places. But Americans have enjoyed these amenities their whole lifetimes, and through no fault of their own have lost the ability to live without them.

In this area, our Irish neighbors have an advantage, even if they don’t realize it. People here grew their own food, made and fixed their own belongings, and scraped by recently enough that older people remember how to do such things… Some people here still know how to garden, forage, dig peat out of the bog for fuel, and handle animals—enough of a critical mass to teach others quickly. The lives of people here might stand up to more punishment than Americans can handle, in the same way that the stone bridges near our house still take daily traffic after 250 years and will continue to do so long after today’s shopping-mall infrastructure has crumbled. Transition to a post-crash life will not be pleasant, but here, more so than in America, it will be possible…

Serious crashes can happen, of course, and our technology does not make us immune to them. There is a reason Ireland has so much open country and so many ruins; in an earlier age of railroads and mass communications, one crop failed, and a third of the island’s eight million people died or fled. We Americans have lived for decades at the other extreme of prosperity. Most nations live somewhere in-between—which is where the U.S. is likely to find itself sooner rather than later.

At some point America will witness a crash much worse than the Great Recession. It might feel like the end of the world, and some people, raised on two decades of apocalypse porn, might believe it to be so. But as the long-suffering Irish have discovered, the day of a crash will also be a day when bedtime stories need to be read, animals need to be fed, and chores can’t be put off until the next news report. The crisis will pass, and permanent things will remain.”

I love how he concludes with a reminder of the simpler things, the “permanent things [that] will remain.”

I remember as a young boy, we were leaving my grandparents’ and grandma, a child of the Depression, commented to my parents about me, “All the book-larnin’ in the world won’t do that boy a bit of good if he doesn’t have any common sense.” Her words stung (being able to remember them 30+ years later), but they also lit a fire under me. I became very deliberate about paying attention to the world around me, thinking things through, being much more engaged and practical in my thoughts words and actions. It was not an overnight change—I am continually realizing how out of touch I used to be compared to now. Part of it comes with maturity, I guess, but part of it either must be innate or chosen or both.

It has also shaped how I teach. I offer feedback to students based not just on the correctness of their work, but also the quality of it and the attitude with which it is done. The lab is heavy on instrumentation, and I try to make sure that it is not a blackbox to them, but that they have some understanding of what things do, how to figure out the source of malfunctions and even maybe how to fix them. They need to also examine and know why things are the way they are and not just blindly bump through the course and life, but engage. I encourage all of my colleagues to examine whether they are creating graduates with a user mindset or an engaged mindset.

Resourcefulness should not be limited to the heroes of our movies and storybooks. This nation was built on generations of amazingly resourceful people. Let’s not forget the skills and mindsets that are hallmarks of our national heritage.

Thanks, Grandma, for that swift kick. It changed my life.


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