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The handyman in me

Who needs a socket sewhen you can set a digital watch?

Pride has made me a toilet expert, so if pride goeth before a fall, I worry about where I might land. I grew up completely uninterested in things mechanical, and still have to stop and think carefully before identifying something as either a crescent or pipe wrench. I approach with trepidation every activity that involves sawing.

Yet last night, I put my wife to sleep with a long-winded diatribe about how sad it was that fill pipes were made of fragile, custom-fit aluminum, while flexible fabric-reinforced vinyl tubing was clearly the superior choice. As I droned on, her last conscious thoughts were probably a wish that I had left toilet repair to her father, as I did for the first half-dozen years of our marriage.

My father-in-law is the classic handyman of his generation. He can wire a house, build a shed, or change a carburetor. What’s more, his Rube Goldberg-like genius for mechanics lets him employ a system of pulleys and gears that hoist a half-ton dock section out of the lakeshore by pulling one lever (as long as the trees don’t get uprooted). He cheerfully changed our furnace filters and some hard-to-reach light bulbs when I first married his daughter, but eventually that demon pride made me wonder if I might be able to replace a light switch cover or two. I still leave anything beyond the ballast in a fluorescent light to him, but I’ve graduated just a bit beyond basic household plumbing, and no floods yet. Knock on wood.

Still, I’ve often thought how hard being married to me must be for my wife. Growing up, she lived in a household with a man who had the reputation of Montgomery Scott. (“I canna get any more juice out of this weed whacker, Captain!”) Neighbors and relatives brought appliances and failed woodshop projects to Bob for repair. My mother-in-law’s mantra is, “He can fix anything.” How could my wife marry a man who didn’t own a socket set?

I know I’m not alone in this state, at least not within the IT industry. They don’t call us geeks for nothing, right? I would wager heavily that the combined readership of COMPUTERUSER has performed fewer oil changes in their lifetimes than some JiffyLube branches do in a holiday weekend.

Few of us would seem to be the archetypal handyman, with a vast workshop in our heated garages and small engines lined up for repair. Those of you not lucky enough to have someone like my father-in-law are good friends with the Yellow Pages.

But how many of you have had someone ask for help setting up a new PC? Many, to be sure, but that doesn’t seem like handyman work because it’s just related to your job. How about setting up a new VCR, though? A cell phone, or electric alarm system, perhaps. At what point do we realize that we are this century’s version of the fix-anything handyman?

For me, it was a weekend when I reconfigured a printer for my father-in-law himself. It really hit me the next day when my wife’s mother brought her boss to me at church, asked me to set the time and alarm on his complex digital watch, and I heard her say of me, “He can fix anything electronic.” Perhaps my wife didn’t do so badly after all.

Installing software and configuring increasingly computerized household appliances can consume those of us with the skills needed, and we’re going to have to deal with that position. The neighborhood computer whiz may prove to be in greater demand than the neighborhood lawn mower whiz–especially when the lawn mower needs to be programmed.

*****

This month will mark my final Ethics column. I have had the privilege of seeing my opinions published in this space for more than four years, and I am grateful to COMPUTERUSER for printing the column, and to all the readers who were willing to read it.

The purpose of this column, and the reason for its title, was to act as a forum for considering the implications of technology in a broader sense. This provided an excuse to step back from the day-to-day news events and look at how the information revolution changed the way we live, then to further ask how choices should be made. What passes for analysis in our rapid-paced industry is too often more tactical than strategic.

It has been suggested that a topic like ethics can run its course–that the discussion of such issues might be fulfilled, or used up. I am not really an objective commentator on the subject, but I disagree. I have dozens of items in my future-topics list, with no danger of running out. Of course, sometimes I strayed from the definitions of the column, but as long as there is change we will need to take care that we don’t rush headlong into it.

As I prepared for this final column, I was mindful of a number of recent issues that might be worthy of discussion in the near future, from John Ashcroft’s views on Internet censorship to the successful hacking attacks on Microsoft. The news that holds the most potential impact, however, is the economy. Media and investor attitude states that America has entered a period of recession, and self-fulfilling prophecy is combining with other factors, like basic energy costs, to make this come true.

Despite some optimistic views to the contrary during the recent expansion, economic cycles are probably inevitable. What most concerns me is that faith in technology, which was considered the fuel of economic growth for the past decade, seems to have dissipated at the first sign of trouble. Venture capital for dot-coms has dried up, and stockholders are crying for profit accountability from any Internet-active company. Jobs and advertising have disappeared hand in hand, and investors are racing back to old-school retailers.

It seems that the message of this recession is that the values of e-tailing and online commerce were only imaginary, or a luxury that could be afforded only during boom times. Where is the faith of those who proclaimed that Amazon would be the 21st-century equivalent of Sears & Roebuck?

The mood swings of investment analysts seem as easy to blame as anything for the cycles of economy. If you believe these cycles’ latest whims, technology investment is no longer necessary, for profit now depends on “fundamentals.” In other words, they don’t believe anything ever changes.

Our world does change, but rarely in ways that can be predicted–in other words, it changes in ways that make people uncomfortable. Sometimes change has to wait for a generation to pass away, so individually we should all fear becoming too obsolete to continue into the future. With each new future approaching more rapidly than the last, we all face a choice: Change or die.

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