Fiddling with gadgets

Technology, you gotta love it. In a workaday world where one’s occupation is less and less likely to be explainable to one’s six-year-old (“No, Daddy isn’t a fireman or a carpenter — Daddy is the marketing manager for his company’s variable annuities sales department”), technology offers what may be the last opportunity for actual productive work that doesn’t involve growing crops.

If there is one thing that draws people into a technical line of work, it’s probably an abiding passion for fiddling with gadgets. To a certain kind of person, there is nothing quite as compelling as being confronted with a brand-new gadget and learning how it works,  figuring out how to make it work better, or getting it to work again when it breaks.

Indeed, therein lies the integrity of technical craft: with gadgets, results are not negotiable. The clear, cool beauty of  technical work is that, in the last analysis, it doesn’t matter where you went to school, or what letters come after your name, or whom you know, or how you negotiate.

What does matter is that you either get the gadget to work, or you don’t. That’s it. People regard you according to your ability to make the thing work. On this alone you rise or fall.

Stark as the proposition may be, it has a certain appeal. To some, it represents an island of rationality in an arbitrary world, a place of known cause-and-effect, where doing counts more than talking, where ability counts more than opinion.

Or maybe it’s just a place where you can get paid to do what you like doing best — fiddling with gadgets.

I used to work in television production. As a line of work, it’s still probably more gadget-intensive than most. Traditionally, any time you wanted to do something to the picture, you pretty much had to go out and get another gadget to plug into all your other gadgets, every last one of them with its own unique potential for fiddling. For the natural-born gadget-wrangler, such is a prescription for bliss.

Enter the computer. The Major Gadget. The Everything Gadget. In a sense, The Last Gadget. Because now, when you want to do something different to the picture, you do it in software. You pick commands off of menus, or you press some keys, or somebody writes more software.

For anyone whose diagnostic repertoire includes a bang on the side of the cabinet, this sounds dreadfully close to negotiating.  We’re supposed to be fiddling with these gadgets, not schmoozing with them.

Technically, of course, software is every bit as mechanistic as a real live steel-and-plastic machine. So theoretically, a program should have much the same fiddle-potential. Even more, actually, because in software, parts are cheap.

Witness, too, how doing practically anything with a computer is astonishingly time-consuming, ninety-nine percent of which time will qualify as fiddling, pure and simple. Software turns out to be a fiddling bonanza.

In the time since television production made the transition to computers, software has of course spread to nearly every working surface on the planet — an exponential boom in virtual gadgetry, with a fiddling demand to match.

As this transition was taking hold, though, many old-school types found there was something in the nature of this particular kind of fiddling that simply does not satisfy. It’s so… abstract.

There’s the guy in the next cubicle, say, fiddling with a database program. He’s mousing around, pointing and clicking, staring at a screen. Alternatively, he might be fiddling with a web editor, trying to get the layout just right. But there, too, he’s just mousing around, staring at the screen.

Confronted with such evidence, some people inevitably concluded that the fundamental, hands-on, gadget-conquering urge to fiddle is just not fulfilled by mousing around on a screen.

Others, more fortunate, were able to understand that the old virtues still apply to the new gadgets, however virtual they may be: you either get the thing to work, or you don’t.

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