World

May There Always be Tinkerers

April 26, 2021 by

rotary dial cell phone
Photo credit: Justine Haupt

Early last year, a thirty-four-year old engineer called Justine Haupt designed and built a portable phone with a rotary dial. Her phone is about three by four inches, with a stubby removable antenna. It uses a sim card like any other phone and it has a little e-paper screen that displays missed calls. In other words, it is an honest-to-goodness functional phone, not a gimmick. What it cannot do is take photos, send and receive text messages, or run apps. You couldn’t read this post on it. These omissions are, of course, the whole point of the thing. Justine posted a photo of her phone on her website along with a brief description. To her surprise, the site crashed due to high traffic; the demand for the clunky little phone was incredible, and it wasn’t even for sale!

Why does this give me great hope for the world? Well, for a few reasons:

First, rotary dials are very nifty things that are fun to use. I remember a time when every phone had one. It’s sad that they have passed out of everyday use. I would love to use a rotary dial now and then, and it seems I’m not alone in this.

Second, it’s good to see that the spark of ingenuity is still alive in America; that my generation is not just a herd of passive consumers; that there are still some tinkerers out there, messing around with real things like circuit boards and switches. A culture that fosters tinkering is a good culture. Tinkerers invented jazz music and corn dogs and the screen door and the safety pin. Matthew Crawford puts it well:

What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.

May there always be tinkerers!

Finally – and this is going to get a little philosophical, so bear with me – ever since the Enlightenment, there seems to have been a widely held belief in something called “progress:” that with ever more rationalism and more machinery, with less superstition and less religion, the human race is marching onwards to a future of peace and happiness. “Citizens,” said Enjolras, the revolutionary in Les Miserables, “the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. . . .” John Lennon sang about people “living life in peace,” which could happen if we would all just “imagine there’s no Heaven.” Statues of the other Lenin pointed toward a similarly bright future cleansed of religious dogma. Today, with Lennon a nostalgia icon and Lenin’s statues mostly toppled, this worldwide utopian ideal has found a new home in Silicon Valley, this time to be ushered in by giant corporations. “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg in 2017 (sounding almost as starry-eyed as Enjolras). “The thing that bound us together at Apple was the ability to make things that were going to change the world. That was very important,” said Steve Jobs.

Ah yes, changing the world. So you see, it won’t be Communism or the Beatles that usher in world peace after all, it will be social media and the smartphone. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward the Apple Store. There will be no more events. We shall be happy! I wish I could believe that this is true; because if it were, our time would be a time of great hope. After all, half the people on earth now own a smartphone, so we must be on the cusp of achieving the long-elusive Brotherhood of Man, right? Strange though, how it doesn’t feel like we are. It feels more like we are being tricked. As a species, we are certainly “progressing,” but maybe like Lenin’s pointing hand, we’re progressing in the wrong direction. C. S. Lewis wisely noted,

If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.

In this sense, I see Justine Haupt’s rotary cell phone as progress in the truest sense. Will it bring Big Tech to its knees? Hardly. The phone’s tongue-in-cheek slogan “Live Free or Die” is a little hyperbolic, too; obviously a rotary dial phone won’t make us truly free. But by virtue of being less distracting, it might make us just a little more free. Imagine if thousands of bright young minds like Justine eschewed high-paying jobs at Google and Apple, and instead stayed in their local communities and started cottage industries handcrafting simple, useful, quality products and selling them directly to customers. Imagine if today’s youthful creativity wasn’t largely going into designing ever more slick, minimalist phone apps; imagine if more of it were going into real-life tinkering instead. Who knows how it might change the world? It would certainly be a more interesting place, maybe even a more joyful place.

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Donal McKernan

Donal McKernan lives with his wife Cornelia and two children at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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