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A black-box society?

12 March 2019

A few days ago I made a video (as you do) about how there seems to be a lack of interest in "making stuff" these days.

Although the video was focused on the dearth of young blood in the field of model aircraft flying, it applies equally to a lot of the pastimes that used to attract eager young folk and their inquisitive minds.

And that's a worry.

I'm starting to think that kids are simply taking stuff for granted these days and no longer really care about *how* stuff works anymore. We're turning into a black-box consumer society where nobody gives a damn about the "how", just the "now".

Cars are a great example of this but just one symptom of a culture-change that threatens to dumb-us all down.

As a young lad, I knew from a very early age, exactly how the internal combustion engine worked.

Crankshafts, camshafts, valves, bearings, carburetors -- I could tell you in intricate detail the purpose of these components and how they all worked in concert to turn petrol into torque and horsepower.

Of course this was back in the day when every schoolboy could identify the key elements of the engine under the bonnet of dad's car. Things were much simpler then and all those interesting parts were easy to find and identify. Today however, lift the hood on your average modern car and all you'll see is a big plastic shroud that covers the "interesting bits" so as to keep inquisitive hands and minds well away.

It's almost as if the auto industry doesn't want people to know or understand how these expensive bits of machinery work -- or how to fix them when they don't.

As a teenager, I had a small stack of Haynes service manuals... one for each car I had owned in previous years. They were an invaluable source of information that enabled a poor (but energetic) young lad to keep his aged "bomb" on the road for the longest possible time, at the lowest possible cost.

It was nothing to strip an engine down, replace the rings and bearings, give it a valve-grind then reassemble the whole thing, set the tappets and timing then fire it up and drive down to the burger bar for a feed -- all on a Saturday afternoon. These days, I doubt you'll find many people nearly that keen.

Of course it has to be said that back in "the olden days", being able to strip and rebuild an engine over the course of a day was an essential skill -- because they simply didn't last very long by modern standards. The head would have to come off every 30,000 miles or so and by the time an engine reached 70,000 miles it was starting to burn copious amounts of oil and run pretty poorly. Rebuilds were just a part of the maintenance schedule!

Today, thanks to vastly improved metallurgy, engineering and lubrication, engines will run for 300,000Km or more before they need more than a regular oil change so it could be said that all those skills and experience that most young lads used to get has become redundant.

However, knowing exactly how an engine works is still a valuable piece of knowledge, even if most modern engine faults are diagnosed by computer rather than a seasoned mechanic with years of experience and skill behind them.

But I digress... let's get back to today...

A friend of mine has been doing quite a bit of STEM/STEAM work with schools overseas of late and he sighed deeply when he reflected on the fact that recently, the number of kids who were interested in such topics was less than 3 percent of students.

Why has the curiosity of the young waned so much?

Is it because we're no longer teaching or encouraging kids to be inquisitive and curious?

Is it because they are only interested in what something will do rather than how it does it?

Do they really care what goes on inside their computer, tablet or smartphone... so long as it works when they turn it on and it runs the apps and games they need?

And what about the world and universe around us? Does it matter if we don't have the slightest clue about math, physics, chemistry and such -- so long as we can press a button and get the desired outcome thanks to modern technology?

Most of my early life was spent pulling things apart to see how they worked -- and then apologising to my parents for the mess and the fact that there newest appliance or bit of machinery was now a pile of pieces on the floor. Are today's kids still doing that?

I used to derive great pleasure in fixing stuff that had broken and the more complex the repair, the greater the satisfaction when it was completed. Are today's kids simply learning that when something doesn't work any more, or becomes unfashionable, we ought to just throw it away and get a new one?

I wonder how long before we come full-circle and the culture of curiosity and the burning desire to peek under the covers again infects our young. Will that spark a renaissance of innovation, invention and progress?

Or have we crossed a barrier that can never be reversed? Is our tech now simply so complicated that people can no longer understand what's going on and therefore don't care?

I'd like readers' comments. Perhaps this is all just perception on my part. Perhaps kids today are as inquisitive and curious as ever about the technology they use, the world around them and the science that defines our universe. You tell me.

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