Fixing and fixability as attribute and philosophy

Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working With Your Hands has made the top of the NY Times website, and well deservedly so. His argument is that physical work, especially diagnostic worked involved in solving technical problems, are as fulfilling and intellectually stimulating as any desk job, though the hours may be longer and your fingers dirtier. For instance, you have think about your angle of attack not just in terms of the likelihood of being right, but the cost of finding out:

The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.

There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well. But in many jobs there is an attempt to do just this, and the perversity of it may go unnoticed by those who design the work process. Mechanics face something like this problem in the factory service manuals that we use. These manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, presenting an idealized image of diagnostic work. But they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure.

Sounds like a good consultant to me. And the right kind of academic.

Buying an old Mercedes has certainly taught me something about expertise. I first tried taking it to the largest Mercedes dealer in Boston, whose reps took in the car wearing white coats and were utterly useless: The customer service rep had never heard of this particular model (it was the flagship at the time,) the computer system could not deal with cars before 1982, and come to think of it, the rep didn’t know much about cars in general. The mechanics seemed to be looking for a place to stick the computer diagnostic tool, nearly destroyed the suspension and tried to solve problems by "Easter Egging" – i.e., replacing parts until the problem disappears. Eventually I found a company that had both the knowledge of the car and the diagnostic philosophy required – to listen to the problem and determine what it is based on the few symptoms a car really has to give. What a relief – and what a fulfilling job it must be to work like that.

A colleague of mine remarked, a few weeks ago, that "nobody repairs anything anymore." A few years ago I bought my wife a nice everyday watch, a Seiko with a stainless steel chain. The chain broke, she took it in, and was told that the cost of fixing the chain would be so high that it would be better to just replace the watch. The watch was not designed to be repaired.

What little work I have been able to do on my old Mercedes has been joyful, since the car is designed to be fixed – the screws are solid (no plastic clips that rot over time) and accessible, everything is laid out with some logic, and if you sit down and think about it, you can figure the technology out (with, for me, the exception of the automatic gear boxes, which I don’t understand and wouldn’t have the tools and space to do anything with anyway.)

Crawford continues:

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate.

This is one reason I sometimes envy people who do "mere" programming for a living – the ability to have problems that have solutions, tell you when they are solved, and reward the laser-like focus both on the detail and the broader reflection (and abstraction) necessary to see the bigger picture. The problem-solving I am involved with on a daily basis is less a question of understanding what to do than it is a question of finding a way to express the solution in a way that convinces those who hold the key to it to actually do it. Assertiveness certainly helps, but, boy, would I love to just tinker for a while.

Anyway, I have but scratched the beginning of Crawford’s argument, but hey, I think I have gotten the gist of it. The rest I leave you to read on your own.

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2 thoughts on “Fixing and fixability as attribute and philosophy

  1. Karl-Martin Skontorp

    Regarding “nobody repairs anything anymore”: luckily, DIY repair is not completely dead. With a bit of luck, you can find replacement parts for the watch on eBay. Maybe a better example, look at iPod and mobile phone replacement screens, often even bundled with the necessary tools. For cars (also new models) there are Haynes manuals that will at least tell you where the plastic clips are located.

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