Friday, July 29, 2011

Rebooting the Toaster

A few years ago, Liane gave me a wonderful toaster for a birthday present. (I like toast!)

It is the most sophisticated toaster I have ever seen. It has a selection of electronic control buttons which glow in various colors, tiny electric motors which move the toast up and down, and a microprocessor which governs the whole operation. Press the correct button and your bread is drawn into the machine, toasted, and returned, as smoothly and automatically as a DVD slipping into the disc drive on your computer.

At least, that's what happens most of the time. Quite often though, things work a little differently. Press the button, in goes the bread, all the lights flash in a peevish spasm, out pops the bread again (untoasted) and nothing is achieved. When that happens I can only find one thing to do. Unplug the appliance from the wall outlet, wait twenty seconds, plug it back in and try again. I call it rebooting the toaster.

Rebooting the toaster is a metaphor for the way even our simplest tasks - and let's face it, toasting bread is pretty simple, a campfire and a pointed stick will do it - can become technologized to a point where they have "no user serviceable parts inside".
As a kid I regularly repaired an old Dualit toaster.
Everything in there is solid mechanical engineering; a fourteen-year-old (especially one who was not too worried about electricity) could fix it with no problem. But the new hi-tech toaster is beyond the range of tools and competencies that I possess. If I can't reboot it, there is no alternative but to buy another one.

The principle of "subsidiarity" or "localism" suggests that 'all matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority'. I'm worried that I'm no longer the competent authority even to fix my toaster.

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