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Populism—technological literacy

In my last essay I mentioned technological literacy without providing much definition or context to the concept. This caused quite a bit of misunderstanding and confusion. And so I find it necessary to explain what technological literacy is, and why it is important to have the technologically literate in any successful society.

The ability to operate tools is the main difference between humans and the other intelligent forms of life. Civilizations are the product of tool users. About the only thing humans can actually build by hand is a clay pinch pot--everything else requires tools.

Because everything we use requires tools to make, tool creation represents the most sophisticated form of manufacture. It is difficult to make DRAM chips: it is much MORE difficult to make the tools that can make the DRAM chips. And of course, it is insanely difficult to make the tools that can produce those DRAM making tools, etc.

Because there are greater and less difficult forms of tool use, tool users stratify along skill lines. It is in the creation and use of tools that we discover the origins of meritocracy. In the world of tools, it does not matter your age, race, social class, looks, or gender--only your skills. And because these skills can be learned, we also have the origins of social mobility.

Social Mobility

The goal of social mobility for the technological literate has unfortunately been a promise that has been kept only on rare occasions and in few societies. But when it happens--when the tool makers and users are accorded respect and the income that goes with it--the society enters a golden age.

There is a good argument to be made that the VAST majority of power and influence the USA acquired over the years was due to her reputation as a paradise for the inventors of tools and their users. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Eli Whitney were all first-rate scientists / inventors; Sam Adams was a brewer; George Washington was a surveyor. Compared to the useless protoplasm that has ruled most countries for most of history, USA truly was founded as a tool maker’s paradise.

But such is NOT the historical norm. Thorstein Veblen’s most popular book was called “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” In chapter after chapter he cites examples of how status and income are usually accorded to those with no tool skills at all. In fact, the key contrivance the Leisure Class employs to defraud and keep the tool users in their place is to portray the useful as dirty, stupid, and low status.

A Personal Note

When I was growing up in rural Minnesota, I would have scoffed at Veblen’s descriptions of Leisure Class dominance. I was surrounded by gifted tool users. My father, a preacher, was not one of them but all the farmers in his churches were. I still recall the burning shame I felt one day in fifth grade when I realized my father was the only father from among my classmates who could not weld.

This was also the age of Sputnik--when skills in aerospace were considered essential for national survival. I learned science out of brand new textbooks, I built a five-tube radio in 6th grade, and wasted the rest of my youth building model airplanes. All of them flew--some MUCH better than others.

Since I grew up in a culture that measured a man’s worth by how many tools he had mastered, my intent was to become a great man with the great skills necessary to defend a great nation built by great tool-making geniuses (adolescent males tend to be a bit overdramatic, as you can see).

And then I went to college. For the first time in my life, I met grown men who were proud of their lack of tool skills. I did not actually believe these absurd creatures were serious until one bitterly cold January night, I came upon two professors trying to get a car started. One had discovered a set of jumper cables in his trunk (put there by his wife) so they actually had the tools for the task. But a quick glance told me that they had NO idea how this little job was performed.

Where I came from, young boys were expected to KNOW how to jump cars. It is a simple job that can easily be done exactly wrong--get the terminals backward and you can blow up a large lead-acid battery which leads to chemical burns, blindness, and other unpleasant side effects. Jump starting a car was a lesson taught with DIRE warnings complete with a “check four times before you hook up” philosophy. So not only were my professors not starting their car, they were actually endangering their health.

In about four minutes, we had both cars running, hoods closed, and the jumper cables coiled in the trunk. The professors were kind and exceedingly grateful that I had happened along so late at night. And then one of them recognized me and said with an odd note of disappointment, “You’re one of my students, aren’t you.”

By the time I got back to my room, I was livid. “How,” I shouted, “can grown men in Minnesota not know how to jump start a car? Why am I paying money to learn from such idiots?” And, “Can you believe that fool was actually disappointed that I was a student and not some member of the campus custodial staff?”

Parallel Universes

Even though they are usually the most educated people in the community, grinding poverty is the lot of most small-town preachers. So while I was expected to go to college, I wasn’t going to get any financial help from home. Fortunately in those days, big guys with a passion for tools could get well-paying jobs in construction. Until the late 1970s, it was possible to actually pay for a decent college education with wages from summer and part-time jobs (yes it is true).

And so I found myself in two contrasting cultures. When I was a student, I listened to professors decry the dehumanizing evil of technology. As a construction worker, I worked with folks who wanted to get their hands on the best technology available.

It was often a task trying to remember the differing cultural norms. I rarely offended the tool culture. But on occasion, I would commit a Leisure Class faux pas. For example, I once forgot myself and disclosed that I knew how to build a house during a graduate level course on housing policy--the classmates who had spent THEIR summers interning at HUD actually gasped.

But while I made an effort to be bi-cultural, my inclination lay with the tool users. Once in Everett Washington I saw them lower the HUGE tail section of a Boeing 747 into position and watch it literally snap into place. It was much better than magic! (and they do it three times a week.) I was so impressed, I nearly swooned. I’ll confess I have never been that impressed by a lecture on Chaucer.

In my book, Elegant Technology, I devote THREE chapters ( history , class analysis, and cultural difference) to observations on the gulf between the tool culture and the Leisure Class. There are that many differences between the two. But to my mind, the most fundamental is their differing conception of truth.

In the world of the Leisure Class, it is possible to have passionate debates about the interpretations of Shakespeare or post-structuralism without causing much damage. The truth in law is determined by who is able to convince 12 jurors. Truth in academe is determined by how many citations of authority (footnotes) are included in a paper.

By contrast, truth in the tool culture can only be discovered. It matters not one whit who you are or what you believe. If it is wrong, you will be found out. And if you make your error while operating a large airliner or a tower crane, the penalties are VERY high and often people die.

When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” he was obviously demonstrating his Leisure Class training. If Jesus had responded like a carpenter, he might have said, “Listen you Roman fool, truth is the fact that if you want crops in the fall, you must plant in the spring. Truth is that no matter how powerful the ruler, he cannot alter the tides. In fact there are so MANY truths beyond ANY rational dispute, you could spend every minute of your life searching for new ones and still only discover a tiny fraction of them.”

The Triumph of the Leisure Class (even in USA)

The incredible has happened. USA, one of the inventors of the high tool culture and certainly one of its greatest practitioners in history, has become, as a culture, Veblen’s Leisure Class--times 1000. (There are many reasons why his 1899 description of the Leisure Class now seems so understated, but one stands out: He never saw television--how could he possibly have foreseen the industrialization of status emulation?)

Lest one believes I overstate the case, it has been estimated that as late as 1962, the USA had more manufacturing than the rest of the world combined. In 1969, we landed men on the freaking moon. Members of the tool culture have more reasons to have nostalgia for the 60s than the most devoted Deadhead.

And then it all came unglued. In 2006, we have a merchandise trade deficit of over $2 billion…per DAY. With the exception of weapons, we make almost nothing the rest of the world actually wants to buy. We’ve lost over three million manufacturing jobs in just this decade. We lost an important American city because some Mickey Mouse dikes failed. Civil engineers generously rate our infrastructure as D.

Except for the obvious fact that wrecking things is a LOT easier that creating things, this total meltdown of the American tool culture is still almost impossible to comprehend (and I watched it happen in real time). The demise of the world’s greatest tool culture required a left jab and a right cross.

The left jab was cultural. Educating the young to believe that technology was evil and dirty and that no self-respecting gentleman would be caught dead touching any of it can make some sense if the only people with access to the higher learning were the useless sons of the landed gentry. But in a society that opened its academic doors to the children of the productive middle classes, teaching them to parrot the inanities of the losing side of the Industrial Revolution proved disastrous.

The Left Jab

The most important left-wing critic of the tool culture was, of course, Ralph Nader. He called himself a consumer advocate and organized a critique of the producers. He wrote a book called, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which targeted the automobile industry in general and General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvair in particular.

The Corvair was an interesting attempt by GM to make a small car to roll back the successful invasion of Volkswagen. Like the Volkswagen, it would have a rear-mounted, air cooled engine connected to the wheels with swing axles. Unlike the VW, it would have a more powerful six cylinder engine. The problem with putting the engine in the back is that it makes the car tail-heavy. Arrows fly straight because the weight is concentrated in the nose. So tail-heavy cars always want to swap ends. The VW worked on some level because it was grossly underpowered. Corvair’s much higher power magnified the natural flaws of a rear-engine arrangement. In fact, unless you read the owner’s manual and carefully inflated the rear tires to 30 psi while only inflating the front tires to 18 psi, your Corvair was an ill-behaved beast.

To make things worse, the delightfully light and brisk steering inspired driver over-confidence. And since most drivers automatically assume that every tire should get the same amount of air, the Corvair became a death trap. So Nader had a legitimate target.

Interestingly, the only car with a similar configuration was the Porsche 911 series and it also had legendary handling flaws. The nastiest was called trailing-throttle oversteer (if a driver got into a curve and thought he was going too fast and lifted his foot off the gas, the car would abruptly spin out). Porsche owners thought it was a charming flaw that separated the good drivers from those who should never have set foot in a driver’s car in the first place (real men NEVER back off in curve).

The Corvair was a really good object lesson in the many things that can go wrong when designing and building an automobile. The most obvious was that just because a competitor had achieved success using an unconventional configuration, that did not make it a good idea. It took Porsche until the late 1980s to really make the rear-engine automobile safe for their orthodontist customers. This redesign required thousands of engineering hours and millions of Deutschemarks--the kind of investment even GM was unlikely to lavish on an entry-level car.

Ironically, the Corvair got a new rear suspension in 1965 that was MUCH better. Nader seized on this development as “proof” that GM knew it was building a dangerous car in the first place. In effect, Nader was accusing GM of deliberately wanting to kill its own customers. Sadly, many readers would believe him.

Keep in mind here that the Corvair was no worse than the sainted VW “Beetle” and was probably better in many ways--IF the tires were inflated properly. Since air for tires was free at most gas stations, this was a very MINOR requirement. The idea that GM had resorted to this clever trick to kill its customers was utterly insane.

But the damage was done. By insisting that evolutionary redesign was evidence of corporate crime requiring the work of expensive lawyers, Nader was attacking the very soul of the tool culture. Innovation is impossible without the courage to build something that cannot be known down to the last detail. Nader’s preposterous assault on the Corvair absolutely ripped the heart out of GM’s willingness to innovate. In the 1960s, GM was arguably the most innovative automaker on earth. Their little Olds F-85 had a jewel-like aluminum V-8--the tools were sold to Rover and they produced that V-8 for years, the Toronado had a seven-liter front-wheel drive system when the experts claimed such a configuration was limited to two liters, their Pontiac Tempest had a flexible driveshaft coupled to a rear transaxle, etc. etc. Yet to call GM innovative today would be pure madness.

The Right Cross

Nader and the other Leisure Class lefties would prove a minor annoyance. They were only the enablers. The real death blows to the tool culture would come from the greedy, reactionary right.

The industrial economy that was promoted by the Keynesians was ideal for the tool culture in highly important ways. Difficult tasks require time and investment. Deliberate government policies made possible incredibly complex tasks. The most important were:

1) The primary goal of the Keynesians was to increase the purchasing power of the lower economic classes. This made it possible to invest in large and complex projects because a large consumer pool was reasonably assured.

2) The costs of basic research were socialized. There was still a large amount of private research but that was largely problem-solving. The government would pay for the more esoteric research. Government would not only finance basic research, but even more importantly, it would buy early production.

3) Tax policy was formulated so that companies could retain earnings that would be used to finance massively difficult endeavors. These nest eggs were essential for innovation.

4) Financial regulation ensured that moneylenders helped build the tool culture. Of all the organizations in need of social control, finance is at the top of the list. And the MOST important regulation is a cap on interest rates. If interest rates are low, finance enables the tool culture. If interest rates are high, finance is the parasite that destroys the tool culture.

The moment the tool culture was toppled is subject to interesting debate but a prime candidate has to be the day the Nobel committee awarded the memorial prize in economics to Milton Friedman. The economic theories Friedman taught at the University of Chicago were almost exactly the ideas believed by most economists when they proved that they were utterly unqualified to advise governments in 1929. By 1976, however, the people who remembered clearly why the pre-industrial conservatives had been discredited were mostly dead-- apparently even in Sweden.

While championing the ideas of antiquity is a harmless Leisure Class diversion in philosophy or theology, it would prove deadly to the tool culture. While speculators carved up the industrial giants, destroying cities and the future of USA in the process, the Friedmans of the world would rationalize the plunder. His main rationalization for predatory excess was that management owed their total allegiance to the shareholders. The rest of the stakeholders--INCLUDING the existence of the company itself--were owed nothing! The workers, the communities, the governments that paid for infrastructure improvements, the states that had built world-class schools of higher learning, the public funding of basic research, the environment, etc. etc.--none had claim on a corporation. Only the moneylenders would have power--and only the market would regulate human activity.

The shift from productive capitalism to the predatory version was astonishingly swift. But such is the nature of the beast. When some punk puts a rock through your window and wrecks your dashboard to steal a radio, he MIGHT get $50 for the $600 radio. You lose a week getting the damage fixed and it costs $4000. When the punks start throwing bigger rocks like leveraged buyouts, they also make off with some easy profits but the damage they cause is incalculable.

And there goes the future

The biggest dilemma caused by a destruction of the tool culture is that the Industrial Revolution was about half finished. It may have solved the problems of almost unlimited production, but it had only just begun to address the environmental problems caused by this stunning productive capability. Unfortunately without the ability to innovate, these problems cannot be solved.

In the Dark Ages, the Europeans could look at the Roman aqueducts and wonder how they could be related to the people who built them. Today’s Easter Islanders cannot explain how their ancestors erected those amazing stone heads. In USA, we not only have folks who could not BEGIN to describe how the Apollo Missions were organized, many actually believe the moon landings were a hoax created on a sound stage. Our Dark Ages are truly upon us.

Al Gore suggests in An Inconvenient Truth that we still have 10 years to address the climate change caused by humanity’s infatuation with fire. This is an obvious example of the sort of problem that can ONLY be solved with a healthy, innovative, and vibrant tool culture. I look around at the pathetic remains of the culture I fell in love with as a child and sadly ask “healthy?” “innovative??” “vibrant???”

Rating your own technological literacy

The following is a scale of TL

  • Operate: Give highest points if mistakes are costly or life threatening
  • Maintain: Highest points go to very complex maintenance with high costs for failure
  • Manufacture: Highest points for difficult and precision cutting, joining, and processing raw material
  • Invent: Highest points for originality, difficulty, and impact on the culture


Add all columns

  • Less than 25 -- stay away from sharp objects
  • 25-50 -- your friends seek your technical advice
  • 51-100 -- you probably make your living with tools
  • 101-150 -- you have probably advanced the toolmakers art
  • 151 and up -- You are qualified to discuss the general themes and directions of the tool culture

See also:

Part One: Populism--an Introduction
Part Two: Populism--Size matters
Part Three: Populism--a matter of class
Part Four: Populism--Marxism NOT


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