I have an uneasy relationship with electricity: last time the main fuse blew in my house, i fixed it, tentatively, but turned it back on at arms length, with a wooden spoon, hiding behind a cushion. World class protection from electrocution, i’m sure you will agree. But i’m nothing if not enthusiastic, so when my parents broke their paper shredder, i thought “i’ll give it a go”. After all, how complicated can a shredder be? And i unplugged it first…
I was rather taken by a book i read last year, exploring our evolved relationship with trades: mechanics, electricians, plumbers, reduced from the level of artisan, through principles of scientific management, to mere operators. Crawford argues that there is an art, a craft, to diagnostics and repair and, ever the optimist, i believed him.
Shortly thereafter, surrounded by the toolkit of the incompetent, scissors, knives, and a few incorrect screwdrivers, i had the thing in pieces. This was something of a surprise to me, as so much technology today is shielded, hidden: the craft is hidden behind smooth curves and recessed rivets. Not so our cheap shredder: it succumbed to my ministrations with a deceptive ease.
The kicker of repair is that, at some point, the hidden world is revealed, the curtain drawn aside, revealing not glossy beauty, but dusty and frankly dubious soldering. Steve Jobs may have made his engineers sign the inside of the first Mac, thing of wonder as it was, but had he signed this thing, it would have long ago faded and disappeared into the murk. But i set to work with my knitting needle, clearing out paper, gleefully prodding things that looked prod-able, and generally mucking about.
Having fleetingly flirted with the notion of testing it without the cover on, i remember the churning, crunching sound it had made, and opted to cover the gnashing teeth before bringing it back to life. Eighteen screws later, and we stood ready to go. Such was my confidence that i forsook the cushion and wooden spoon, and flicked the switch.
A faint whir, the smell of burning paper, and that was that: consigned to the tip.
It turns out that my competence is still unconscious or, simply, absent. But here’s a thing: we hide higher knowledge away in many ways. We secrete it, make it un-permitted, forbidden. We dramatise the danger, make it arcane, shield it in faux complexity.
We do that in organisations too: creating domains, jargon, and hierarchy, all of which can forbid curiosity. Sometimes, we all need to take the cover off and have a good poke around. We may not fix it, but it’s remarkably empowering to fail.