Friday, November 16, 2007

Sharpening Your Points

We live in a world of technology that is beyond our comprehension. I say that with some humility having spent most of my adult life working in high technology. I still don't understand how lots of things work. But I don't tell people that. If the topic comes up and I don't know an answer, I make one up (my wife catches me in these all the time). Given the rapid state of development of technology on so many fronts, it is a wonder that we aren't in a state of perpetual techno-angst. Or maybe we are and just don't know it.

My wife brought this topic to mind when she remembered a story about a friend of hers who some years ago was taking her car in for service. When my wife asked what service was being done, her friend responded, "They have to sharpen the points." For those of you younger than say forty, you can read about old auto ignition systems at Wikipedia. Despite their name, contact points are not sharpened! Cars don't have points anymore as the ignition is now entirely electronic. A simple but troublesome electromechanical system has been replaced with a reliable system (but non-serviceable system by the average weekend mechanic).

I think a lot of us do what my wife's friend did. We like to pretend that we understand the technology we live with but we really don't. How many times have you seen a stalled car on the side of the road with a man looking under the hood as though somehow the problem will be obvious. In newer cars, opening the hood only reveals a large plastic cover over virtually the entire engine compartment leaving nothing visible. If the problem is anything more than a loose part (which is highly unlikely), a computer will be needed just to diagnose the problem. Opening the hood and staring at the engine is just a ritual left over from the days when you could see the engine...and things did come loose.

Should we know more about the technology around us? Is that even possible? I think we should know where to go when we have a question. Mostly, we need to know enough to fix the simple things, the ones that make me look dumb when somebody points out that my thermocrockle isn't plugged in. My suggestions: (1) read the owner's manual! It's amazing how much is in these things. Even better, (2) Google the problem. You would be amazed at the specific information you can find by typing in half a dozen search terms.

Like most people, my mode of operation is to assume everything will function forever... until I am rudely disappointed by some glitch or problem. Then I start on the triage list above to see if I can fix it. Most of the time, I can either solve it myself, or if (1) and (2) fail, I call in the cavalry (my son the Geek, the garage mechanic, the tech support line, etc).

So far, our psyches seem to be staying one step ahead of our everyday technologies. But techno-angst is rampant in the land. If all else fails, remember that a mere thirty years ago, most of what is giving us migraines didn't even exist. We will survive without it...if we must. I hope.

[Image of contact points from Wikipedia]

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