I wish to speak a word for mechanical dials. In fact, I wish to speak a word for mechanical anything. Mechanical everything.
For decades now, buttons and dials and levers have been phased out and replaced by touch screens. It is vogue for devices that do not even need touch screens to have them — laundry machines, printers, toaster-ovens. Everything is ‘smart’. Everything is connected to the cloud. And everything has a touch screen.
As touch screens have taken over, buttons have been forsaken. But more importantly, as digital has taken over, mechanical has been forsaken. Our watches are digital, our cars are digital, our doors locks are digital. As digital seeps into our devices and into our appliances, touch-screens multiply.
Yet, there is something unfulfilling and hollow about operating a touch screen. The haptics feel phoney… the smudging of fingers against oleophobic glass panels in order to operate a device is unnatural, although we have acclimatized to it. We are, after-all, highly sensitive to touch. Our nerve-filled hands have developed over millennia to be dexterous and nimble. When we operate mechanical controls we can feel them in our fingers, hands, bodies, toes.
Anyone who has driven a stick-shift car knows this. Race car drivers “feel” their cars through clutches and gear sticks. They are so tuned into their machines that their controls become parts of them — metal and leather and rubber extensions of arms and legs. Through these extensions they react and interact subconsciously with their cars as they speed around tracks.
In fact, we all experience this, albeit in more mundane ways. We feel the texture of the road and the grip of our tires through our steering wheels. We feel our engines hum through vibrations in our gas pedals. To drive a car with nothing but a touch-screen would demand considerable mental effort. To drive one with a steering wheel and a gas pedal demands almost none.
Buttons, levers, and mechanical controls serve important functions. They are perennial — always there when we need them. They allow us to orient ourselves within an interface, and to act and interact in consistent, dependable ways. They allow us to operate intuitively by touch, rather than by sight. By their very nature, they constrain complexity: an interface with mechanical controls can only hold a finite number of objects and data. A screen, by comparison, can hold infinite objects, can be infinitely complex. This complexity is concealed. For example: one can know, with a simple glance at the dashboard, that a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter is a more complex machine than a Toyota Prius. But the difference between the complexity of a Chromebook and a Kindle is infinitely harder to discern. On screens, interface is subsumed by software, and software is impermanent and ephemeral, changing constantly as users interact and transmogrifying when developers update code.
When the iPhone lost its home button in 2017, panic ensued. Apple had wanted to reinvent its flagship device, to impress people with a bigger, more immersive screen, to streamline its hardware. So they did away with the home button, replacing it with a little horizontal line and a slew of new swipe gestures. Suddenly, there was no obvious way to get “home” if you were lost in an app or on some foreign settings screen. Users balked at the complicated mechanics of using face-ID instead of a button and struggled to figure out how to master new gestures and operate the phone one-handed. Things like restarting and switching apps required confusing interaction patterns, some of which were difficult or near-impossible with a thick case. Access to voice control, the camera, music, notifications, and even accessibility features were suddenly re-mapped to complicated sequences of swipes and taps, mediated by invisible new-fangled sensors. For a time — at least until users learned the new gestures and subsequent software updates smoothed out rough edges, the iPhone became complexity incarnate. And while we have largely adapted to this new buttonless paradigm, the iPhone has never truly recovered from its loss. Apple, a company that prides itself on simplicity and on building devices that are so intuitive that anyone can use them, removed the one control that made the device simple; the thing that we pressed when we didn’t know what else to do — the thing that we could press even when software wasn’t working.
Of course, buttons are not the only controls that matter. Dials operate similarly. The dials on an analog camera allow one to change settings. Actually, they allow one to change a single setting, almost without thought. Each click of the dial signals to you through the nerves and bones in your fingers that you have altered the shutter speed by a fraction of second. To grab a dial and turn it is a near-thoughtless action; your fingers simply pinch and twist.
Cameras themselves are liminal devices. They were some of the first to become digital, but it has taken a very long time for digital to completely subsume them. Until a few years ago most serious cameras still had mechanical shutters. A few of them had touch-screens. That has changed, but even now, most cameras still have a few real buttons. Some of them even have mechanical dials. There is something visceral about pushing a button and feeling a real mechanical reaction… like a mirror flipping down, or a shutter snapping. It is satisfying, but it also communicates something important: a photograph has been captured, an action has happened.
Many modern digital cameras have tried to preserve this feedback loop; the sense of something happening when, for example, a shutter button is depressed. Of course, something is happening, but that something is silent. It is digital. It is electrons moving across silicone photodiodes, binary code, 1’s and 0’s. These things happen near-instantly, and they provide no feedback.
So feedback is falsified. A fake loop is created. Digital cameras beep and click and whir when we press their shutter buttons so that we know that a photo has been taken — but we know, deep down, that the sounds we are hearing are simply the execution of code. It is not real, and if the code fails to execute, we will no longer know if a photo has been taken. So we don’t — we can’t — truly trust a digital feedback loop. Not like we can trust a mechanical one. When you press the shutter button on a digital SLR you can feel the mechanism, and you can feel when it is stuck. On a digital camera, you can only listen for a beep. Behind the beep, there is only code.
This ambiguity is a cornerstone of digital things. When a digital thing breaks it is often not apparent why. Error codes can send us pre-recorded messages, can give us hints, but ultimately, unless we are software engineers (and perhaps not even then), we cannot diagnose or fix our broken digital objects. This creates a sort of “learned helplessness,” and helplessness precedes carelessness. If we don’t believe that we have agency over our tools and devices, why would we care about them? So we pull away, we disassociate. We use our digital things heedlessly, and when they break or wear out we throw them away and buy new ones. It doesn’t matter because we don’t understand them. They are apart from us, not of us.
Mechanical devices are different — or at least, they can be different. In the digital age we have learned to be helpless, but our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents serviced their own cars. They took apart their refrigerators. They replaced components. They fabricated and retrofitted and recycled… not because they had any special training but because the devices of their times did not use proprietary, patent-controlled microchips, and did not require electrical engineering degrees to figure out. They were handy-men and handy-women, and handy-ness is a vector for care, for attention, for engagement. It is hard to be careless about something that you have worked hard to repair and maintain.
But not all is lost. We can, in our digital age of touch screens and binary code, unlearn helplessness, and mechanical things offer salvation. To take apart a mechanical thing and to put it back together is to reclaim lost agency. To repair a mechanical thing, to tighten its bolt or to grease its bearing, is to attune yourself to it, to immerse yourself in its function and its operation, to make it sing, and to revel joyfully in its song. It is to become a part of it and to let it become a part of you. This requires little more than a schematic, a healthy sense of curiosity, and a teaspoon of aplomb.
Of course, we can unlearn helplessness with our digital things too, albeit less comprehensively. We can learn to speak the languages of electronics and computers — of currents and networks and code. We can fiddle and tinker. We can approximate some of the agency that we are permitted to have over mechanical things. An elegant line of code, while less visceral than a well-greased ball-joint, is a joyous thing.
Mechanical or digital, we know this: when we take the time to understand our things, to maintain them, to repair them and to make them sing, when we pay attention to our possessions and care for them, they flourish.
When the things around us flourish, so too, do we.