The differential gear, explained

Watch the following video, there’s a lot to unpack beyond the sheer impressiveness of explaining complex engineering:

The most amazing thing to me is its tacit expectation about the audience’s ability to comprehend. This is seriously complicated engineering and it shows. Particularly worth noting, as Michael pointed out on the Facebook post about it I made, is the moment when the narrator speaks the name of the gear at 1:18 – you can hear the pride in his voice, and it is appropriate pride. This is an incredible achievement and to the uninitiated feels something like breaking the fundamental rules of space and geometry once comprehension sets in. Completely understandable, yet also inspiring of awe and wonder… is this video an act of carpentry? (The fact that this is an edit of a longer video that cuts out some irrelevant introductory material suggests that it might be.)

In spite of its obvious complexity the producers have enough faith in the ability of their audience to comprehend it, so long as it is explained sufficiently well. This is truly mind blowing to the modern viewer, and I couldn’t help seeing it as something of an indictment of the contemporary lack of faith in audiences that many (even most?) producers have (with the HBO-types the exception). Granted, the 1950s had their own share of stultifuyingly cut-rate explanations, but even these completely boneheaded simplifications had their own child-like naiveté or innocence about them. See the bewilderingly horrible/laughable 1950s “educational” video on homosexuality for an example which, while remaining utterly, contemptibly wrong in its understanding and explanation of the causes of paedophilia (wrongly attributing it to homosexual deviance), still comes at it from a place of unacknowledged ignorance instead of from a position of condescension and low-regard for its audience.

Consider: what contemporary producer would dare to show minutes at a stretch of nothing but moving mechanical parts, along with the clear, methodical narrated precision of an engineering textbook? No one would take the risk, perpetually terrified as they are that their audience would switch over to MTV or something with more flashing lights, more naked flesh – less challenging fare. Almost no one has the same faith in their material, either.

And why should they? The technical feats most richly rewarded in the 21st century are not those that overcome tricky engineering problems in ingenious ways, but instead those that overcome tricky economic problems. The kind (and amount) of mental work that goes into being able to imagine the solution to the problem presented by car wheels moving at different rates is certainly more impressive than the work involved with structuring debts and investments; the kind of actuarial acumen involved with making stacks of cash. And the trouble is, outside of the small class of economically literate people, no one even cares that you made a hundred million dollars in collateralized debt obligations last month. No one cares in the slightest, because it’s just not that impressive. There’s no pride in being a part of the grifter class (as Matt Taibbi has labelled it) that hoovers up cash like it’s going out of fashion.

So it is a complicated kind of takeaway – the way impressive mental feats of creativity involved in science and engineering (after all, what is engineering but imagining-into-being something never before envisaged) have few contemporary friends. Along with the desuetude from taking pride in suitable feats (like the differential gear) a kind of ‘boosterism’ has arisen to take its place. Think of the obsessive elevation of science and engineering (the raising of the LHC to the status of icon or idol is typical) as an attempt to recapture some of this lost pride, but instead it falls completely flat by virtue of overreaching. Carl Sagan’s studious and sober appraisals are far more compelling than the obsessive hype of contemporary emulators like Brian Cox.

Jacques Ellul has a thesis that whatever force destroys the power of the sacred takes on that mantle of being sacred itself, for obviously this foce of desecration is more powerful. Ellul argued that technology took the place of religion, which it demystified and deserated, but perhaps that image is incomplete. Perhaps it was engineering technology that did so. Presently, it seems that financial technology (‘financial instruments‘) might be following the same dynamic.

Sorry clever engineering, you’re just not making enough cash to be impressive…