When our species dwelled in caves and fashioned the first ax heads onto handles, our impulse to tinker was there.
Longer stick. Hit harder.
We yearn to make things better, different, our own.
The industrial age both stymied and encouraged the desire. Factories churned out tools far better than all but the most dedicated craftsman could do alone. Products arrived to the consumer already finished. Except when we decided they weren’t.
Our ultimate consumer good, the automobile, defines the wonder of only what machine-made can mean, hand-crafted can’t and yet still invites customization.
What Detroit produced on a mass scale, America reworked one greasy, cussing, knuckle-busting project at a time in garages and driveways. We painted our cars special colors (flames make any ride cool). We converted hardtops to convertibles, vans into campers.
More commonly, if less dramatically, the handy among us changed our own oil, tweaked our own carburetors and replaced our own spark plugs.
Then those sons of Buicks got fancy. Fuel injection replaced carburetors and silicon chips began taking over ever more control of the engine, brakes and transmission.
That computerization of the car pushed fixes and maintenance beyond the reach of most shade tree mechanics. A light on the dashboard meant a trip to a shop with electronic diagnostics because a look under the hood wasn’t going to tell you much.
About the same time, home computers emerged. And they sucked. They crashed. They cost too much. They could be hard to understand. But they also appealed to the instinct of the ax makers that you could make what them a little more to your liking. Take that, default setting, I’m using a different font.
Over time, not coincidentally the adulthood of Steve Jobs, computers got easy to use. We tinkered even more.
We picked our desktop wallpaper, played around with screensavers (even when we no longer need to save our screens), even wrote code to get our spreadsheets just so. I like that I can make my phone call out “yo” to signal an incoming text, shoot me.
The BSidesKC security conference in the Crossroads on Saturday — dozens of white hat hackers sharing ideas on how to keep black hats from busting into their companies’ networks, and possibly your bank account — gave some evidence that tinkerers are playing with car guts again.
In a corner, K.C. Johnson of Michigan-based CanBusHack showed the cyber security types how to pick a car’s brain. Hobbyists are playing with their engines again. Tap in to the controller area network, or CAN bus, that lets various sensors in the car share data and you can boost your mileage, or conversely, uncork more horsepower.
Do-it-yourselfers also fiddle with their lights, create their own remote starters, putting throttle levels on their radio displays. “Some people just like to play around,” Johnson said, “because they can.”
The security savvy crowd sees that ability to play around as a vulnerability. If you can give your phone access to a car that comes with built-in accident avoidance, they wondered, what happens when some jerk hijacks your phone and activates the brakes? In fact, two years ago, hackers proved they could bust into a Jeep Cherokee remotely and kill the engine. Jeep has since fixed the vulnerability, but the car industry has yet to agree to universal security standards.
What can be modified can be broken. Even in the digital age, our desire to tinker burns steady. Our first project might be putting up defenses.
More Digital Life stories