Jan 5, 2015

#89 Something I Can Fix

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

The "Right-to-Repair Bill," House Bill 228 and Senate Bill 124, is all about requiring manufacturers to design and build products that can be serviced locally. If you have any interested in knowing what's going on inside and outside of your vehicle, you might want to encourage your representatives to endorse this bill. If we miss this moment, the chances are good that future generations of motorcycle enthusiasts will be clueless about the technology between their legs.

I'm regularly tagged for my dislike of the biker old-guy gangbanger crowd and I don't feel any great loss from my lack of empathy with that bunch. When I hung out with the Vincent owners biker gang, I got a taste of a different kind of old-guys-on-weird-motorcycles image. Many of the Vincent owners are guys who can fix anything that goes wrong with their strange motorcycle of choice. Anything. Some of these guys are so good with that era's technology that they can built an engine from a chunk of aluminum stock and enough iron to cast a set of pistons and valves. That kind of mechanical skill is a vanishing commodity in our culture.

My day job puts me in the midst of the disposable digital revolution. My business used to be driven by guys in white coats who not only knew how the equipment worked, but could build substantial pieces of necessary equipment when required. The great thing about digitalization of all things artistic is that the media for creativity is affordable for practically anyone with a moderate income. The not-so-great thing is that the technical skill required for basic understanding and maintenance of the tools of the trade is growing more unobtainable with every update in the technology.

At one time, it was all but impossible for someone to make a living as a recording engineer without also having considerable technical skills. You had to maintain a professional tape deck, for starters. The gear had a bunch of moving parts, was usually exposed to clouds of cigarette smoke and occasional floods of beer and the usual rock and roll stimulants, and it would all last for decades if it was well looked after. But you had to know something about the equipment to make it do anything useful.

Today, you buy a box, a computer, some software, and you're a recording studio. A Mac and Garageband can do more musical damage than most experts could manage with an orchestra and a million dollar studio. One problem with technology that has such a low entry price and a short learning curve is that it doesn't inspire as many users to become true experts in the field. However, the gear we use today will not last for decades and it can't be realistically maintained. Packing 25 pounds of crap into a 5 pound bag means that the bag will wear out a lot faster than previous, less tightly-packed, generations of bags.

The components that naturally degenerate are going to degenerate much faster than the same parts' deterioration rate in equipment of the past. It's not a big deal, because the stuff is so cheap and becomes obsolete so quickly that replacement is more practical than repair. The throw-away culture has taken root in all sorts of technologies. Last year's super computer is this year's landfill. Perfectly serviceable cars and trucks are called "junkers." Tools that once lasted for decades are all but rubble about the time we learn how to use them.

A lot of motorcycling old guys are hung up on the idea that they understand how the old bikes work and can repair them. That is an admirable goal and a worthwhile reason to hang on to the last century's technology. Ideally, we'd move on with the times and retain the ability to fix equipment built currently. That is an unusual trait in old guys. Most of us passed through our creative, educable prime when we were teenagers and in our early 20's. From then on, we clung to what we'd learned as if it would remain state-of-the art forever. Now we're old, stuck in our ways, pretending the old stuff is the good stuff and doing our best to ignore the last half-century's improvements in performance, quality, and reliability.

On the manufacturing end of things, companies appear to be doing their best to wipe out owner-serviceable products. If the old guys of the future are going to have anything to brag about, modern mechanics are going to have to figure out the newer, more complicated, precision gadgets and they are going to have to be able to fix them. Tomorrow's engineers are today's young mechanics and hotrodders. If they are deprived of access to the technology of their time, we might find ourselves in even worse technological shape than we are today.

Check out the Right to Repair Coalition at http://www.righttorepair.org/. If you care about retaining access to the guts of your motorcycle and other vehicles, now is the time to say something about it.

MMM May 2010

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