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5318the car as a black box

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  • billt44hk <telomsha@netvigator.com>
    Jan 1, 2003
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      Some astute observations about alienating technology in this
      article. Particularly the fact that cars are so stuffed with high
      tech gizmos now they can no longer be repaired and tinkered with by
      their owners as in the past "The car has become a black box..."
      It sits well with the recent BBC Radio Four poll in which the
      bicycle came out top as the greatest invention with 70% of the votes
      and the car only got 4%.
      Is a new dawn of awareness stirring in this the Late Auto Age?

      Bill T

      From The Spectator 9th November
      Once fathers taught their sons the mysteries of life; now fathers
      have to look to their sons for help
      by Matthew Parris
      This is a reflection on boys and fathers. It may be different for
      girls. See what you think. Is ours the first generation, or the
      first for a long time, when boys know more than their fathers?
      I am not speaking of wisdom, whatever that may be. The older
      generation will always believe it possesses greater wisdom than the
      young. Knowledge that comes from emotional experience, perspective
      that comes from having seen it all before, can only be taught by
      time. Despite the bravado of youth, children dimly sense that, and
      will in every age. But do not exaggerate the automaticity of a boy's
      assumption that in the big, abstract questions of life his dad knows
      best. To some degree that deference is learnt from the boy's direct
      and daily experience that in smaller and more concrete matters Dad
      turns out to know best, too.

      If you had asked me as a boy what really impressed me about my
      father and why I looked up to him as I did, I would have replied
      that it was because Dad knew how things worked. He knew about the
      solar system (Mum didn't, really), and in the precious quarter-hours
      he would often spend talking with me before my bedroom light was
      turned out, he would explain. I would ask about the planets and the
      stars, and gravity, and what the wind was and why it blew. I would
      ask about plants and animals, and geography and volcanoes. I would
      ask about motor-cars, electricity, steam and the internal-combustion
      engine.

      Dad told me how a wireless worked, and helped me build one. When I
      was 16 he bought me an ancient Morris Oxford which, together, we
      rebuilt, dismantling and overhauling the engine. When our own car
      broke down, Dad could fix it: he knew how a carburettor worked, how
      a distributor was put together, how you changed the bulb in a
      headlight.

      When Mum's iron broke, he fixed it. When her typewriter played up,
      he sorted it out, showing me the levers. We even fixed a faulty
      telephone, which in those days was a mostly mechanical device. The
      technology of the era (the 1950s and early 1960s) was overwhelmingly
      mechanical (only electronics really stymied Dad), and most of the
      technology upon which family life depended, and which so fascinates
      a boy, consisted in refinements of technology which had been around
      for 30 years or more, and which Dad had mastered when young. His
      knowledge was still applicable; the material truths into which he
      had been initiated as a child still current. He knew these things; I
      did not. He taught me; I respected him.

      The up-to-dateness of my father's grip on the world about which I
      was learning was not restricted to machines. Politics had not
      changed much since 1945. The British political parties and their
      outlooks and prospectuses were clear and known to him. Abroad (where
      we mostly lived) there was Empire — he had fought for it — and Dad
      knew all about that, too. In classical music it was possible to
      ignore most of what came after Wagner, and Dad gave me a good
      grounding. In popular music (though the horror expressed by grown-
      ups at teenage tastes is eternal) my parents did understand rock-and-
      roll and quite enjoyed some of it. Dad explained to me the simple
      progression of chords upon which all rock-and-roll is based. It
      fascinated me to discover then hear for myself the link.

      Though every father will recall from his own childhood a different
      set of Hows or Whys to which his father had the Here's hows or the
      Becauses, I fancy that many will share my general recollection of a
      father who seemed to know how the world worked; and may share with
      me, too, the suspicion that because Father seemed abreast of life in
      most practical matters, he gained moral authority as well.

      Is this not diminished now? Isn't the list of things about which
      boys know more than their dads growing? Doesn't a son sense that
      this modern world is his world, a world of things, and relations
      between things, which he and his mates understand better than their
      dads? Their dads are prisoners of a past world, blinking and
      slightly baffled at what they have survived into.

      Few dads could fix a car these days. Carburettor and distributor are
      electronic. Gearboxes are way beyond amateur repair. Windows are
      electrically driven, doors locked by a radio signal. The workings of
      an automobile are packed with dense intricacy into inaccessible
      spaces. Special tools are needed to work on them. The car has become
      a black box.

      Likewise our means of travelling without moving. Information
      technology is a black box, too. We have passed the point when most
      dads could understand, let alone fix, radios, telephones or mobile
      phones. The personal computers, laptops, copying machines and
      printers that have replaced pen and ink, carbon paper, slide-rule,
      typewriter or Gestetner machine are black boxes even to their
      suppliers. We replace rather than repair. The days when you could
      buy a manual and work things out from first principles are gone. Not
      only does Dad no longer know how things work; he is struggling even
      to work them.

      His son has overtaken him. In his element with computers and
      screens, texting at speed on his mobile phone, intuiting with ease
      how to stop the automatic oven display panel flashing after a power
      cut, and quickly au fait with the special functions of the new sound
      system — how it can find stations automatically, remember channels
      for the future, and even work as a clock-radio alarm — he is able to
      use his mobile phone like an adding machine. The boy has over his
      father this huge, subliminal advantage: he is not hampered by
      anxiety about how the thing works. He only wants to work it.

      Does his father have much to teach him about 21st-century politics?
      The boy may understand it better. `Mrs Thatcher is history, Dad;
      communism's finished; the class war is over; shall I explain to you
      about the hole in the ozone layer?' Has Father the least
      understanding of modern music? How can he, if he doesn't club and
      hasn't tried E? This is not a why-oh-why? lament: how can he?

      I do not envy the modern father in his quest for authority. Life as
      it was lent his Dad the knowledge of mysteries into which he could
      inculcate his son. Now life hands the key to those mysteries to our
      children. The boy really has become father to the man.

      Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.