5318the car as a black box
- Jan 1, 2003Some 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?
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
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
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.