Day 4: Control

I like watches. It’s a hobby I picked up about three years ago when I was in grad school. I was around a lot of breathtaking technology, but what captured my imagination was a simple idea: that a series of metal pieces could move in such a way that it could tell us where on the Earth was on its rotational axis.

So today, when I was watching Apple released a new watch, I knew I didn’t want it. I love Apple products. Usually, I want everything Apple. But today was different.

I think technology solves problems. I think technology can be delightful. I think technology can help people.

But today, I noticed something. Apple first release a desktop computer. Then a laptop, a phone and now a watch. It’s gotten smaller and smaller, and at some point I’m sure they’ll release a contact lens that is a computer, which would be awesome. But even though smaller is usually better, it also means I know less about how it works. If my Macbook broke, there would be a decent chance I could fix it. If my iPhone broke, there would be a much smaller chance I could fix it. If the Watch broke, I’d be screwed.

So all that is to say, the technology involved in some of these machines is beyond most of our reach. That’s OK. But there are also some incredible machines, like old watches and the Model T, that a smart 15-year-old could take apart and put back together, with a decent understanding of what each part does. I find that kind of design delightful — empowering.

Part of it is control. There are many things in the world we cannot control. But when a mechanical watch breaks, you can know what is broken — and you can find someone to fix it. It is merely a series of parts that move in a way that we can see.

The other part of it is independence. The beauty of modern technology is that it allows us to communicate. But the downside is that, without electricity or the internet — things at a scale larger than ourselves — we are at the mercy of our situation. This is partially why I bought a typewriter. I know that, no matter what happens, I can still write as long as I can find pigment for my ribbon and paper that is unspoiled.

As I’ve encountered more and more things that are beyond me — that require far more expertise than I’m willing or able to gain — I’ve tried to master little things. I’ve tried to learn the ukulele and easy programming languages and simple electronics. I’ve tried to learn how watches work, and how typewriters are fixed. It’s exhilarating to know that I’m not at the mercy of an expert to help me fix something that is valuable to me. In a world where our very lives our often out of our hands, whether its in health care or education or our finances, we can control this. And in a world where our goals and our desires are unclear and unarticulated, these machines have such specific and singular purposes that they are sturdy and reliable and satisfying for human beings to use.

I never yearned for control as a kid. I assumed things would be done for me. But I now understand why people don’t want to be reliant on others. I think people who live in tighter communities think differently. New York slapped me in the face and said, “You’re on your own, kid.” Employers told me they cared about me, but what they meant was that they care about what you can do. Landlords told me they would make sure you don’t go cold in the winter, but never defined the word ‘cold.’ So if I prefer the option that I can control, with gears and spring and screws that I can understand and manipulate, can you really blame me?

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