Car Engines and the Internet. A tale of divergence
Posted by mjp6034
A story caught my eye recently about a 102 year old woman who has been maintaining her car for 63 years (http://on.today.com/QxM1xF). She regularly changes the oil and the spark plugs on her Packard Roadster which she bought in 1930. Obviously the most remarkable thing about the story is the longevity of this lady’s relationship with her car which is remarkable. I immediately thought if anyone today is beginning a relationship with their car which will last for as long as this. It may be possible with a vintage car and a simple engine, but the modern car engine is a mystery to all but trained mechanics. Even then these mechanics need a dedicated computer to hook up to the engine’s central management system to access diagnostics and get the car to tell them what needs maintaining. In terms of physically getting into the engine to actually do something like change a plug, the modern engine is a bewildering mass of pipes and wires and strange contraptions, and your set of standard spanners probably won’t work on many of the fixings. It took me 6 months to find the manual dipstick on my car’s engine and it’s not in the place where the manual says it should be. All of this means that car maintenance is now by default outsourced to a specialist garage. The days of the DIY car mechanic are largely gone.
This story is one of increasing complexity, and increasing complexity usually means decreasing access for most of us and a concentration of skill in fewer and fewer hands. This is by and large how the narrative of technology plays out. Take the back off a TV set from the 1970s and it was relatively easy to see with a little knowledge of electronics, where all the major parts were and what they did. You can’t even take the back off a modern TV set, and if you did you’d see a set of generic looking circuit boards with no clue as to what they did other than ‘make the TV produce a picture’. We are surrounded by black boxes, all doing amazing things but which we cannot see inside.
But there is perhaps one area of technology where this story of increasing complexity and specialisation does not apply. The internet, or more specifically the web. Publishing on the web used to be very difficult. You needed to know about HTML (and CSS if you wanted to make your pages look nice), you needed to know what a web server was and how to FTP files to it and if you wanted to do multimedia (even sounds let alone video), then you needed a trip to the bookshop to buy those 2000 page computer manuals. It was all pretty complex, even arcane, and this meant that specialists held the keys to the kingdom of web publishing.
That is all gone now, publishing to the web is now routine. In fact publishing to the web happens without most people knowing they are doing it. They can hit update status on Facebook, or leave a comment on linked-in or fire a few tweets out simply and easily. The technology of the web, the stuff under the bonnet (or in the back of the TV) has gone. Or rather very clever people have written code which have created the appearance of it disappearing so all of us can just get on and get posting.
The question is, what are you going to do with all of this freedom? Are you going to be able to build anything which rivals Margaret Dunning’s 60 year old friendship with her car? How best to use this amazing technology which has dropped straight out of the sky into our laps?