On NPR/KUT a few months ago, I was listening to a short story called ‘The Fix’ by Percival Everett. It was about a character Sherman Olney, who could fix anything- refrigerators, car engines, relationships- even bring people back to life. When asked by his employer (the owner of some sandwich shop) about his ability, he says:
Fixing things is easy. You just need to know how things work.
Once things once again spiral out of control, he has these cautionary words:
You have to be careful about what you fix. If you fix the valves in an engine, but the bearings are shot, you’ll get more compression, but the engine will still burn up. If you irrigate a desert, you might empty a sea. It’s a complicated business, fixing things.
I really like these words. Knowing how things work is part of our jobs as engineers. But it can easily get you into trouble- what you really need to know is how things work together. Knowing how a system works, not just at its formal level- we can all look at a diagram of a simple engine and understand the parts- but at the micro, atomic level and the high, contextual, historical level, is vital to truly understanding any complex system.
So the hard part is identifying when you know how things work, and when you know how things work together. It’s worth the extra inspection and discussion and prudence to figure it out, and make sure others figure it out.