Not long ago I was perusing the shelves of a nearby antique shop and came across a Tektronix oscilloscope dating back to 1964 in almost perfect condition. The price was $75. (An oscilloscope, for the non tech reader, is an instrument used for inspecting the waveforms of varying electrical signals.) In 1964 this scope cost around $900, equivalent to $7500 in today’s dollars.. As a techno-enthusiast young person of twenty, when this instrument was in its heyday, I would have given my eyeteeth to own one, but it would have cost me a year’s worth of my wages at that time.. Fifty years later, despite the fact that I now own a computerized Tektronix oscilloscope that will do a zillion more things than its ancestor, I wanted that vintage scope. Three times in as many weeks I returned to test temptation, and temptation finally won.


Tektronix oscilloscope, vintage 1964

When I got the scope home I plugged it in and was pleased to discover that for the most part it still worked. There was one important function that didn’t seem to be performing as expected, however. I went on line and found a service manual for $30, not to speak of a complete enough schematic wiring diagram that I was able to repair the scope in about an hour using one component from my 50 year accumulation of salvage electronic parts.

I’ve done a good deal of thinking since I made this purchase about why I felt so powerfully motivated to buy an instrument that is really superfluous to my needs, especially since I own one of its descendants featuring many more functions and whose current thousand-dollar price, incidentally, converted to the dollars of its ancestor’s era, would be around $125. (!) Obviously the older scope symbolized something for me that I wanted to be in touch with once more. Surprisingly, I’ve found myself using it, as much as a ritual act as anything else, in preference to the new scope with all its multitudes of (sometimes confusing) features. It has a functional immediacy that the high-tech scope lacks, partially because the latter is computerized and it’s not intuitively obvious how to use its multitudinous features without consulting its fat manual.

It’s worth noting here that in 50 years, if the contemporary scope still works at all, it will likely be impossible for someone to repair, even if blessed with a well-stocked junk box and a schematic diagram. Too many of its functions are mediated by firmware programs running on complex micro-sized microprocessors. If one of these processors fails, not only would it be physically difficult to replace, but it’s doubtful that the company that manufactured it would be able to supply a component that complex as a replacement unit. I haven’t looked inside this instrument, but if it runs true to most other contemporary high-tech equipment, it’s likely full of nearly microscopic components mounted on multi-layer circuit boards, which renders trouble-shooting impossible. By contrast, look at the beautiful hand-wired circuitry of the older oscilloscope. You can see why troubleshooting and repairing it is a piece of cake.

In mulling my motivation for acquiring an antique oscilloscope, I realized that the introduction of the microprocessor into our lives cost us whatever autonomy we ever had regarding the artifacts we use to support our daily activities. The old scope contains no microprocessors and, after 50 years, still operates and is easily repairable. The new one has many slick features, but if it dies, it’s probably dead for good unless I send it back to Tektronix.. You can say the same thing about many home appliances, from toasters to washing machines that have been rendered almost impossible for the independent techno-savvy person to repair. Even my old 1988 Toyota Celica was bordering on inaccessibility. There’s hardly a point in opening the hood of my current 2012 computer-on-wheels. You need another computer to do any work on it, and only the dealer or an approved garage has access to the necessary equipment and software. The car starts with a push-button, enabled by an electronic key. If you push the button and nothing happens, you might as well call a tow truck. Unlike older cars, where starting was enabled by a physically accessible chain of easily visible components, this car is chock full of electronic sensors and actuators, triggered by the invisible thoughts of a microprocessor. If the start button is dead, even someone who knows something about cars is helpless to do anything about it.

Initially, I attributed my attraction to the old scope to nostalgia, That did contribute to my lust to own this instrument, but in contemplating the meaning of the word nostalgia, I realized that behind it hides complicated feelings and understandings about the course of technological “progress” over the last several decades. I put “progress” in quotes because I’ve begun to question what really constitutes progress and whether the electronic gadgetry upon which we now center our lives qualifies as such.

I’m in the process of reading Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle is a psychologist who has written several books about our relationship to technology as it has evolved over the last thirty years, the first being The Second Self. She started out with unabashed enthusiasm for computers and their contribution to our lives, but in succeeding books she’s become increasingly critical, not so much about the technology itself, but of the way we’re using it. Turkle’s subject matter I would loosely characterize as focusing on relationship; our relationships with each-other, and as mediated by computers, cell phones, and the Internet. Her views are important, and interest me greatly, and to them I add my own concern with our actual relationship to physical and electronic tools and the useful artifacts we employ them to create, for example, toasters, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, automobiles, extending across a full spectrum to include the sort of electronic test equipment I’ve heretofore been discussing. Everything I’ve noted in my discussion of oscilloscopes and automobiles applies to all the other artifacts in our lives that have been microprocessorized beyond recognition.

Wendell Berry published a book of essays entitled, What Are People For? I haven’t read it yet, but the title popped into my head because I was just about to ask the same question. If we automate every aspect of our lives, where do WE fit in, finally? I don’t know yet what Berry has to say on the subject, but my answer is: We don’t. The corporations would just as soon eliminate us altogether because we are not “efficient.” To keep humans involved in the machinery that builds the electronic (and other) toys that decorate our lives eats severely into the profits that can be accumulated by the sociopathic machinery we call corporations and their parasitic stockholders.

To return to discussing the business of making things: Back in the 70s, 60s, 50s and all the time before, we were intimately involved in the physical process of manufacturing all the things we use in the course of our daily lives. We were also deeply involved in the creation of whatever machinery we used to make things. Computers had not yet usurped a large proportion of the relationships and skills that we humans had by that time developed with physical machinery. To put it differently, in those days we had an intuitive feel for the machinery that populated our lives, and it was an intuition that arose from long-term practical association. Teenagers in the fifties tinkered with and rebuilt cars in their garage. I built ham radio equipment from scratch, thereby cultivating a relationship with electronics that was highly intuitive. The automobile tinkerers frequently ended up as mechanics and machinists, just as I ended up as an electronics tech and eventually a designer. To be able to identify oneself as a machinist, mechanic, or technician was a step toward living a life of some solidity and with an income sufficient to support a family.

An intuitive relationship with physical machinery, born of physical experience, provides building blocks for mechanical/electronic creativity. This relationship is a form of love. The nostalgia that arises in response to vintage test equipment, tools, and machinery is an expression of that love. The fact that the traditional creative attachment in our culture to physical machinery has been subsumed by computers, software, and robots, is cause not only for sadness but concern. Ironically, it was our attachment to machinery that brought about automated machinery to which it’s difficult to become attached. Machinery that operates in the physical realm is easy to identify with. Machinery that operates primarily in the cyber realm leaves us with nothing to grasp. It’s of course possible to be creative with software code, but it’s abstract, and only intellectually graspable. If you take for example an operating system like Windows, there are so many layers of code that comprehending it in all it’s detail is beyond most of us.

I’ve written quite a bit of code myself, so don’t accuse me of throwing rocks at something I don’t understand.

Nobody could be convinced that we should voluntarily give up microprocessors, although there could easily become a time, not necessarily in the distant future, when it might become impossible to sustain the sort of infrastructure necessary to manufacture them. As more and more symptoms of the downside of microelectronics emerge, a radical Luddite gnome lurking in an unfrequented corner of my psyche wishes that microprocessors, computers, and even TV would just disappear from the face of the earth. This lurking Luddite is not a hateful fellow, but one who laments the loss of autonomy and freedom conferred by the ability to understand and repair machinery upon which our lives and comfort depend.

If there was more discussion about how new technologies should be put to use, and it was acted upon, would that be desirable? Indeed it would be, but unfortunately I find it difficult to imagine how that might happen. Kevin Kelly wrote a book entitled, What Technology Wants. It’s been quite a while since I read it, but I recall him to be arguing that technology, in a sense, has a mind of it’s own. It will have its way with us. Thus far, that seems to have been the case, as distasteful as I find the idea. The only thing I can practically suggest is that we cultivate mindfulness in our use of technology, which is what I understand Sherry Turkle to be advocating in her recent book.

One possible way to nurture mindfulness in areas such as mechanical and electrical design is to emphasize craft, that is, hand work and real physical involvement. I’ve been building things all my life, from ham radio equipment, to high-tech espresso machines, to instruments used in radio astronomy. Over the last twenty years my focus has been creating exhibits for Mindport. That effort has taught me more about the mindful practice of technology than any work I did previously. Two questions uppermost when creating an exhibit are, what will people do with this, and what will they take from it? A third, important one is, how can I make this thing easily repairable? I can’t always anticipate answers to the first two questions, but asking them has taught me a great deal about exhibits and, by extension, the uses to which technology is put on a larger scale. Making exhibits easily repairable is an ongoing challenge. You might think that it makes more sense to turn this question around and ask how to make exhibits harder to break. Unfortunately, the more “bombproof” you make exhibits, the less interesting they tend to be. It’s good if they’re reasonably difficult to break and better if, once broken, they’re easy to repair.

Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation, advocates a return to face-to-face talk as a means to ground ourselves and take back tasks which we’ve inappropriately assigned to our distracting electronic gadgetry. Taking a cue from that advice, I suggest a face-to-face “conversation” with our machinery in a quest to learn more about what machinery really is, why we use it and when we use it inappropriately. In my view, that conversation would consist of manual involvement, whether it’s woodworking, bicycle maintenance, or any other sort of practice that demands careful attention. The current “maker” movement is a sign that more people are wanting to delve into mechanical/electronic creation, but it sometimes seems that this movement is excessively concerned with ego identity for its devotees as “makers,” rather than really paying mindful attention to craft and the questions I raised earlier, such as, what’s the point and purpose of this thing I’m making, and what’s the point of US as humans? That purpose can legitimately be nothing more than practicing the art of mechanical/electronic creation. But if that’s the case, it’s important to avoid the temptation to turn the product into one more gadget with dubious utility, packed with unanticipated consequences. As it stands, there’s too little thought devoted to the meaning of what’s being made or the consequences of turning it loose on society.

Today I recalled a comment I read somewhere about our country being colonized in large proportion by misfits, borderline criminals and religious fanatics. That’s perhaps excessively harsh, but It inspired the question; did the fabled native inventiveness of North Americans arise from the creative mentality of those colonists who fit badly with the British and European culture at the time this continent was invaded? Worth considering, because, like many socially borderline personalities, we North Americans frequently don’t devote enough thought to the long term consequences of our creations. We deploy them for short-term profit and consequences be damned. That sort of mentality I fear is starting to catch up us in unpleasant ways.

  • Kevin Jones