The case for tinkering

When I was a boy the most common car in Romania was Dacia. Compared with modern cars, it is awful. It looks quite bad, you need a lot of force to steer it, putting it into reverse gear is a mix of force and accuracy and you are lucky if it starts when it’s cold outside. It requires a lot of maintenance or it will stop working. The bodywork erodes in a few years and it needs special treatments to stop it from falling apart. Its performance is low too; often when it got to 100 km/h it starts trembling like a rocket just launched to the outer space.

In those times, there was only one TV channel: the state television. Its broadcast time was 2 hours every evening and included mostly news about Ceausescu, the Romanian communist dictator. We could rarely see sports events. Movies would suddenly stop at 11 pm, when the program abruptly ended.

Across Danube, Bulgarians had much longer and better TV time. As a result, every house and block in the country had manufactured or bought an antenna for receiving Bulgarian TV channels. Of course, the antenna would need mounting and maintenance since it was often moving due to wind, snow or even birds. We would often need to check it, tune it and sometimes build a better replacement.

Immediately after the Romanian Revolution that removed Ceausescu and opened the country to a free market economy, Romanians learned about PCs. A few fortunate people (including me) thought programming and computers were fun so we started playing with them. The others needed help to buy one. You would often see people calling more knowledgeable relatives or friends to help them buy, assemble and install the new PCs. I still do technical support for my family when I have the time.

All these stories have one thing in common. These machines were far from being the best, they created problems and put their users to work. But while working on them, something wonderful was happening. Everybody knew how to fix a Dacia car. Everybody knew how an antenna works and what you need to do to improve its signal. Everybody who wanted could learn how to assemble a PC.

We were all tinkerers, and we all learned a lot about technology.

Compare them with today’s devices. Do you have any idea how your car works? What’s in your laptop? How about your mobile phone?

All devices we use today are black boxes.

Manufacturers are probably making good money out of it, because you need to take your car to the service each year and you would buy a new phone or laptop every few years. But that’s natural, that’s what businesses do and as long as there’s a demand for it there will be a supply.

I have decided long ago to still be a tinkerer, as much as I can accommodate it. I’m not very good at car mechanics, so I am happy to outsource the car servicing. But I know enough about computers to choose the ones that allow more tinkering. I know enough about operating systems to choose Linux not only because it’s free and open source but because it allows me to learn more about computers. My perfect phone would have a physical keyboard, a terminal and a compiler. Unfortunately there isn’t one yet on the market but if I had the necessary knowledge I would build myself one.

I choose to tinker not because it’s easy or convenient but because it forces me to learn how things around me work.

Allow me to end with another story. Last year, I dropped my Dell laptop in an airport. It was before starting a workshop and 2 weeks technical coaching session in Germany. The laptop was my office and my training support material. (Yes, I had backups).

I eagerly opened it just to see a bunch of scrambled lines on my screen. “Oh boy!”, I thought. But there was a hope: the lines were in a pattern that suggested that some piece moved out of its slot.

The first thing I did when arriving at the hotel was to take out my Swiss army knife and open the laptop. And there it was, a module connecting the display to the insides of the laptop that seemed out of its slot. I pushed it back, restarted the computer and everything was fine. My knowledge and choice of technology saved me from headaches. Would I have had a MacBook, my only choice were to call the support and wait.

In the light of all the above I wondered:

Are there other tinkerers? What can I do next? What can anyone who wants to tinker do next?

If you believe in the same things, here are some ways to move the idea forward:

  • Write a comment to this post. I would love to start a tinkerers’ community but are there enough interested people? Maybe there already is a community and we can join it?
  • Get the Self-Repair manifesto. Print it or add it to your website.
  • Join the project for building a mobile phone with physical keyboard, command line and compiler. I am a software developer but I don’t know enough about mobile hardware to even assess if this is possible so any information is useful.
  • Aristofanis Halivopoulos

    Dear Alex, I agree with you a 100%. Since I am Greek and everything is not coming easily, furtermore into technology field, after learning to install antenas for tv, building radio stations, repairing motorbikes etc for the same reasons you already were referring, I went to study in the university. That year there was the first home micro present the ZX80 in the market. I preferred the commodore 64 which I bought and started programming full steam. Graduating I changed to my first Apple computer the MacPlus (it still works fine but it seems slow). As a civil engineer I should buy a structural analysis tool, but… this was very difficult. No problem. I sat down and after three months I finalized one by myself, using the university’s books. I also used this home made software for two works in Bucharest for a Romanian friend and engineer who was in charge of the works. All I want to say is Tinkering Rules! I also inspired this to my daughter who is a biotechnologist. I hope this will not prove fatal… Regards to Romania! Aristofanis Halivopoulos