There's been something of an online conversation in the blogosphere (for you people who are new to blog-land, yes: that is what it's called) about how the younger generations today are losing a big chunk of the practical, "how-to" mechanical knowledge that has been part of American culture for many generations. (A sample of this conversation, written by Glenn Reynolds--aka Instapundit--is here.) The idea is something like this: our fathers, who were raised in suburbia, were able to diagnose and fix broken cars. Our grandfathers, who were often raised in rural settings, were occasionally able to assemble whole new cars from parts. Our great-grandfathers, who lived on the farms, could--as necessary--hammer sheet metal into whatever part they needed to fix their tractors, their plows, their livestock, whatever.
But today's younger generation doesn't have much opportunity to poke around under the hoods of cars. For one thing, what's under the hood is a whole lot more complex than what was there in past decades. It's a whole lot easier to puzzle out the workings of a carburetor than to understand multi-port electronic fuel injection (which is controlled by a computer running embedded software to which most mere mortals don't even have access, and wouldn't know what to do if they did). But I doubt it's solely because of the complexity of the vehicles; our society is also much more specialized today than in the past, and it takes more time to achieve mastery of any discipline. If you're spending X many hours to learn database administration, that's time that you're not spending learning how to do grease-monkey work. So today's younger generation, instead of fixing their vehicles themselves, are much more likely than their parents to take it to a dealer and shell out hundreds of dollars for basic maintenance.
Of course this lack of basic mechanical, "how-to" knowledge affects many more parts of life than merely automobile repair. People increasingly need help doing electrical work in their own homes; installing new light fixtures and switches; fixing their plumbing; doing basic gardening and lawnwork; doing landscaping; or doing basic construction work. I know that I wish I knew more about all of these things than I do. If you were to ask me to build a simple cottage with working lights and plumbing from the ground up, I'd have to learn a lot of stuff before I so much as picked up a hammer. When I hear about so-and-so's grandfather who "built the house that he and his family lived in for the next fifty years", I'm in awe. You mean, he, like... built it? With a hammer and saw? Without contractors? Without power tools? And it was watertight? How'd he do that? Did it take a long time? Did he do the windows all by himself? How'd he mate the wood frame to the foundation? How'd he mate the roof to the walls?
To me, all this was voodoo until I was already well into college. Not only was I Suburbia Boy, but we were an Air Force family--living in rented houses and moving every four years or less. (So far I have never lived at one address more than four years, give or take, my entire life. My wife and I are about to break that record in the next couple of months, and boy am I happy about it.) I never got to experience the joys of putting a new wing on the house, or moving walls around, or pouring concrete. So now that I'm in my mid-thirties and finally have a place of my own, I'm slowly discovering these dark arts, and I'm lamenting that they were ever lost. Yes, doing this kind of work is work, no question. But it's also fun, it costs less money than hiring someone to do the work, and it gives a great sense of accomplishment. It helps this house to feel like my house, because I put that in, and redesigned that, and planted that....
But I also sense that I'm swimming against a societal tide. My latest piece of evidence: my humble lawnmower. We have a cordless, electric mower. One plugs it in when not in use, and it charges up; then, when it's time to mow, one mows just like a gas-powered mower, except that it uses a 24-volt electric motor powered by the batteries. It's quite convenient, and it used to be able to do our whole yard on one charge.
We bought the mower the spring after we moved in, about 3.5 years ago. And the lead-acid batteries that power the thing are starting to die--they don't take or hold a charge anymore. So, they need to be swapped out. But the manual strictly says that it is not recommended that homeowners do this themselves; the manual exhorts us to take it to an official service center for all battery maintenance. (And that we'd void the warranty if we tried to do it ourselves. Not that it matters, because it's already expired, but still...)
Just out of curiosity, I opened up the mower to see what the big deal was.
The big deal is, there is no big deal.
Changing out the batteries would be utterly trivial. There are two 12V lead-acid batteries, turned back to back. They are wired in series, making 24 volts. The batteries are held down by a strap (attached with two screws), and are secured from shifting (and cushioned against shocks) by a large styrofoam form that surrounds it on three sides. It is easy to see where the wires all originate and terminate. The wires are held to the terminals with philips-head screws. Although there is one circuit board, it would not need to be disturbed to replace the batteries. The most difficult part would be tracking down the replacement batteries; the work would take ten minutes, tops.
So why does the manual counsel us not to muck with the batteries?
Frankly, because they think we're stupid. And the sad part of it is, they're probably right.
If everyone tried to replace the batteries on their mowers, inevitably someone would break open one of the (sealed) batteries and get acid on himself. Or someone would wire up the batteries in parallel. Or someone would wire the thing up with wet hands while neglecting to wear rubber gloves and would zap himself. Or someone would wire the batteries into a closed loop and start a fire. Or someone would make a poor connection while screwing the wires back into the terminals, and it would come loose during use. Or someone would just throw the old batteries in the trash so they would wind up contaminating the landfill. Or someone would drop his beer on the batteries while trying to change them, and everything nearby would feel the power. Or someone would lick the terminals. And in most of these scenarios, the company would wind up getting sued for a billion dollars for someone else's stupidity. So I really don't blame them for directing owners of these things not to muck with the batteries themselves.
But, gadzooks! This would be one trivial fix for anyone with half a brain. Our grandfathers all did things more "dangerous" than this every day and lived to tell about it, to tell their wide-eyed grandchildren and great-grandchildren that "Yes, I actually know how to change the oil. I must've done it a hundred times," to which everyone tells them, "Oh, that's just too much to take. Stop it."
So in the meantime, while I could fix this thing in a matter of ten minutes, I'm Not Permitted To. Now I admit I've entertained the idea of just saying "Oh hang it all!" or some other appropriate non-vulgar epithet and doing it myself anyway. But my lovely wife, who's very much a by-the-book librarian type, talked me down. So we're weighing our options, which include swallowing our pride and taking it along with a wad of cash to an "official service center" where we can bleat to them about how we would really, really like them to change the batteries, please.
It's a bit frustrating, though. I'm sure hoping that the potential cultural turn-around mentioned in Reynold's article happens. I like the Heinlein quote with which he started the essay: Specialization is for insects.