November 5, 2014

RIP Tom Magliozzi, gentle guide for the technologically perplexed

Tom Magliozzi

Like thousands of others, I was sad to read on Monday of the death of Tom Magliozzi, one half of Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, of public radio’s extremely popular show, Car Talk

The bad jokes and worse puns of Tom and his brother Ray have been keeping us smiling on weekend mornings for years — still do, in reruns, even though they stopped doing live shows in 2012. Sure, it was interesting to hear them analyze the car problems people called in about, but the real attraction has been Click and Clack’s gregarious, wise-cracking, self-deprecating personalities. I can’t remember ever hearing them make a caller feel stupid. I doubt they ever did.

The show’s chemistry has always stuck me as paradoxical. The atmosphere seemed so easy-going, so comfortable, so normal, but it was appealing largely, I suspect, because that sort of interaction isn’t really normal any more. More than any show I can think of, Car Talk conveyed a feeling of inclusion that’s missing from the stressed out, brusque, impersonal interactions that prevail in the everyday experience of many, if not most people today, me included. For all I know, off the air Tom and Ray’s lives were filled with torment, but on the air they seem tuned to the frequency of a kinder, gentler era.

Another thing that struck me listening to Car Talk was how perfectly it embodied an apophthegm formulated by the futurist John Naisbitt in his 1982 book, Megatrends: High tech/high touch.

John Naisbitt
For those too young to remember, Megatrends was a publishing phenomenon, selling something like 14 million copies. At a time when the digital revolution was just starting to disrupt life as we know it, Megatrends offered, as the paperback’s cover put it, “a roadmap to the 21st century….…a new way of looking at America’s future and a new way of understanding the jumble of the present.” 

Some of Naisbitt’s predictions were wrong, as any futurist’s will be, and others were hardly groundbreaking. Nonetheless, some of the trends he identified turned out to be not only accurate, but genuinely important. High tech/high touch, I believe, is one of them. 

The basic idea of high tech/high touch is fairly obvious. Although we’re attracted by the powers and conveniences new technologies offer, they also can convey, collectively as well as individually, a coldness that puts us off. As Naisbitt put it, “The more high tech in our society, the more we will want to create high-touch environments, with soft edges balancing the hard edges of technology.” 

Naisbitt cited gardening, yoga, and meditation as examples of the antidotes we self-administer to counteract the depersonalization of our technicized workaday grind. Whether Steve Jobs ever read Megatrends, I don’t know, but his fabled fondness for skeuomorphs in Apple design reflected precisely the people-friendly qualities Naisbitt said technology products need. 

An Apple skeuomorph design: the iBooks "bookshelf"

“When high tech and high touch are out of balance,” Naisbitt wrote, “an annoying dissonance results….High tech dissonance infuriates people.” 

That seems to sum up how the airline industry has gone so frightfully wrong today. Google tries to strike a bit of high tech/high touch balance with the animations it regularly puts on its homepage, while Facebook tries to preserve that balance by concealing how aggressively it exploits its users' personal information. Social media in general is a massive manifestation of the high tech/high touch principle. 

You might think that the car problems Tom and Ray addressed don’t qualify as “high tech,” but I’d disagree. In fact cars and computers are both technologies we depend on utterly but don’t have a clue how to fix ourselves. For most of us this was true even before the innards of our automobiles became thoroughly computerized, and it’s more true now that they are. We’re as vulnerable facing a car that won’t start as we are a computer that’s frozen. Naked we stand at the mercy of He or She Who Knows.

Which is precisely why Car Talk has always been so existentially reassuring. Click and Clack were guides we could trust to ferry us safely across the chasm of technological uncertainty. Their infectious good humor simultaneously dispelled the mystery surrounding our machines and told us we needn't be ashamed of our ignorance. 

Not all mechanics, or all IT people, are like that, although more and more tech companies are pretending to be, following Amazon’s lead. Of course, as successful as it is, I’m pretty sure Car Talk really does operate on a scale considerably closer to the human than Amazon, or Apple, or their numerous imitators. 

Tom Magliozzi, you will be missed.

©Doug Hill, 2014

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