I was listening to The Art of Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance this morning on a bike ride and at one point, the narrator talks about how even though his comrades know they would save a lot of money and frustration if they learned how to maintain their motorcycle themselves, they refuse to try to learn or even question the “official” direction from the dealers and the manual. Even though they are capable people in every other way, when it comes to problems with the motorcycle, they stubbornly repeat the same directions over and over while building up more and more frustration instead of prying a little bit deeper to try to derive what is actually happening. Throughout our lives, in our gold stars and perfect marks and tests on memorization and pattern matching, we’ve been conditioned to think that there’s a “proper” way of doing things and going through life. That attitude that got us through our educations seeps into our relationships with our tools. We’ve been trained to trust the organization that represents the creators and the official manual and grow wary when anyone suggests a DIY fix, as if they’re pandering snake oil.
Ironically, this same morning, I realized that I wasn’t filling up my bike wheel properly because I didn’t actually know the right way to do it. I could’ve easily figured this out from some common sense digging (no air was coming out from the valve), but I didn’t because I was scared of digging into the guts of it. Even as my mind was telling me it’d be better to just try some things out or at least do some Googling, my body just wanted it to work. Newly bought products especially fall into this category of things that feel like they should just work perfectly without defects in our perfection-focused consumer culture. From throwing out perfectly good but unaesthetic produce to creating fashion-forward but fully dysfunctional chairs, our industries pump out perfect-looking yet brittle goods at a scary scale.
In this case, anyone who knew what they were doing could have pointed out my mistake because it was such a minor example, but there are a lot of instances where the people we have transferred responsibility to, like our politicians or our teachers, don’t actually know the right answer. In those cases, we’ve created a culture where you’re not only incentivized but actually compelled out of survival instinct to speak with complete certainty about an answer, even when no one really knows. We’ve created a power hierarchy where absolute truth flows from the top, and we’re expected to take that truth as the dogma on which to base our lives on.
Whether it’s trying to understand what’s going on with a motorcycle that won’t start, diagnosing a toilet with increasingly lower water pressure, or even fixing all the annoying little things our computer does, like opening Docker on startup, there’s innumerable instances of varying intimidation levels where we’re presented with the opportunity to dig into the provided tool if we can muster the courage to. By default, there seems to be a deep-seated aversion to peeking under the hood of these tools, as if they’re the property of a prestigious guild and we have no right to even consider how they function. It’s as if we need to show our graciousness for having access to these enablers rather than question where they don’t work.
We give the power of change over to christened “operators,” to the “experts” that know what they’re talking about, to “the chosen” keepers of the forbidden arcane arts. Even as we are overcome with intense frustration and sometimes rage when our machines behave unexpectedly or break suddenly, we struggle to escape our dread of looking under the cover. Why do we accept this mode of powerlessness with these systems even when we could make things different? Perhaps we’re scared of finding a truth that we won’t want to see, scared to find that our trust in the stability of how things work, the pillars that hold up our trust in our systems, is actually misplaced in a towering house of cards. We’re terrified of the possibility that we are incapable of affecting change, that our will is meaningless in our systematically controlled society where the future is determined from the start. Lest we start distrusting all of our institutions and social contracts, we must bury the thought experiment in the name of self-preservation and continue believing in the infallibility of our tools and machines. And so we stick our heads in the sand and do our best to embrace blissful ignorance as a defense mechanism, even when that ignorance hurts like hell when our systems and contracts fail us.
Now we see how we end up in this vicious cycle of wanting to trust in fallible operators, finding that their teachings are imperfect, and confronting an existential struggle around knowing things are broken but at the same time, being afraid of digging in deeper to see what we want to find. But can we escape this extreme dichotomy between trusting wholeheartedly and bearing extreme cognitive dissonance when things break and distrusting everything to the point that you can’t operate normally?
A more sustainable way to resolve these complications is accepting the awareness that no one knows everything that’s happening—we’re all just giving our best efforts, and that kind of magic knowledge of “how things work” doesn’t exist in the realm of human-made things. They’re simply collections of pieces of logic put together in a certain combination. If we wanted to, we could pick them apart, separate each individual piece from the complicated whole, and go through each piece and group sequentially until we understood all the different pieces. Of course, understanding how all the individual pieces work and what they should do doesn’t mean we have perfect knowledge of what can or will happen when they all work in tandem. The infinite set of events that can occur in a dynamic system is beyond what our minds can compute upfront, and so even the “experts” in realms can’t know the ultimate answers before trying things out.
Once we understand that no one really knows what they’re doing, how everyone is, in a sense, performing for the role they play, we need to build the courage to tinker. The official definition of tinker is “to repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner” while a tinker in medieval times was used to refer to a traveling merchant who carried miscellaneous goods and can repair goods. In the same way, we need to rebuild the courage to fidget and play with our tools and create more tools that are designed for this mode of use rather than the standard single-function “correct” mode of operation. We need malleable systems that we can change and mold to our needs and wants as opposed to the traditional pyramid of power where truth flows down.
We need to feel ownership in the tools and systems that control our daily lives for us to take to heart the belief that we have the capacity to contribute and change things. We need to believe that we can change our reality if we’re willing to muster the courage to try. And we need to realize that changing our reality is as good as changing reality itself. With that, we’ll unlock the power to shape the world before us.
leftover open questions:
How do we shift our culture meaningfully in a way that promotes this sort of mentality over the default of powerlessness?
How can we incentivize companies and organizations to create tools and systems that open vectors for tinkering?
What are ways for us to empower those that are not traditionally knighted as chosen operators of these tools?
This is the 6th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.
This post reminded me of a piece I read for an education class (https://dusp.mit.edu/sites/dusp.mit.edu/files/attachments/publication/Dancing-With-Robots.pdf). I guess it's only tangentially related, but the premise of the article is that as more jobs become automated, the remaining jobs will center on three types of work: "solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying out non-routine manual tasks." So the idea of questioning existing systems and being open to tinkering is useful in the context of the future job market, too.