By: gvi
19 November 2015

There's nought so clean as honest dirt,

So of its worth I sing;

I value more an oily shirt

Than garment of a king.

There's nought so proud as honest sweat,

And though its stink we cuss,

We kid-glove chaps are in the debt

Of those who sweat for us.

-Robt. W. Service

A while ago, I found something from a blogger going by the nom-de-plume of "archdruid" concerning post-industrial technology. He used an acronym called D.I.R.T. which stood for "Durable, Independent, Replicable, Transparent." I find I apply it a lot, both in terms of preparedness and everyday life.

A dearly-departed and sorely-missed Rubie once referred to me as "retro." I suppose I am. Maybe it was the cadre's insistence on knowing "old school" methods that was inculcated at Field Artillery Survey School in Ft. Sill. Maybe it was growing up in a family of watchmakers, and working with steam-age printing presses in my uncle's printing shop. Maybe it's my proximity to Amish communities. Maybe I'm just contrarian by default – who knows?

In my own home there are many old-fashioned tools and gadgets. I rather pride myself on the fact, for example, that as yet I have found no need for many electric kitchen appliances as can openers, carving knives or mixers. In the event of an absence of electricity, I wouldn't miss 'em because I've never had 'em. I got the taste for "sweat powered tools" - hand saws, brace-and-bit and "eggbeater" drills, hand planes et cetera – when I lived in an old apartment. There were many things I wanted to make of wood, sheet metal and the like, but I wasn't keen on the racket power tools would make. What's more, the apartment supported only 15amp service – I'd blow a fuse the instant I pressed the trigger of an electric drill. Once I got my own house, the tools came with me and I never found a need to "upgrade," my aspirations being relatively simple then as well as now.

The acronym above – D.I.R.T. – is a useful mental tool. It gives us a simple and relatively comprehensive way to evaluate the resiliency of any enabling technology by four meaningful factors:

This is not to say that "old school" is always better – it isn't always better. Some of those things work just as well or better than their modern counterparts. Then again, some don't. We all romanticize the Way Before Times. We tend to forget not only the absence of conveniences we take for granted, like air conditioning, GPS receivers and the internet, but also the presence of nuisances we've put behind us, such as "toll" calls, carbon copies and polio.

The trick is deciding what is appropriate to "bring forward" and what is best left in the past. I can get a lot more work done, quicker and of higher quality, by the aid of the various electronic/computerized systems I have to assist me in surveying and civil engineering, than I ever could with non-electronic instruments, paper calculations and hand drafting. I can do all these things by hand, and have written tutorials on many of them for the Rubicon, and keep current on these skills at least yearly. It helps that I am a Boy Scout Merit Badge Counselor for surveying, for it allows me to instruct youngsters using primitive methods they can grasp and apply, with simple instruments built for rough handling. But once I come back to the office I prefer doing my work with modern conveniences.

And yet it's worthwhile to look at what we use and what we do, in terms of how survivable the technology is long-term. Often, such resiliency is a trade-off between convenience and the "learning curve." For example, a jack plane is often more convenient (and returns better results) than a planing machine. But you have to know how to use it, how to adjust it and so forth.

In reality, many technologies and methods exist along a continuum of more convenient/less resilient ? less convenient/more resilient, such as:

...and so on.

In the discussion on which this short essay is based, one Rubie said, "I do it 'backwards' - start with what we use today then find/learn older methods." It's safe to say that this is how most of us arrive at the issue. We naturally know how things are done right-this-second, and our curiosity is piqued when we consider how the same problem was addressed in our grandparents' time or earlier.

The Firefox series of books is worth looking at for older ways of doing things, as are resources like the Lehman's catalogue and websites. How-to books written for the turn-of-the-previous-century are likewise worth spending time on – in this regard, websites like Google Books and archive.org are your friends, since they save a vast amount of time that would otherwise be wasted searching in libraries, used book stores and garage sales.

Speaking of garage sales, they and antique stores are pretty good ways to learn about older ways of doing things. Look at this-or-that tool or kitchen gadget; touch it, heft it, manipulate it, and you can decide right there if it's something that fills a real need, or if – like the "As Seen On TV" doodads nowadays – it was more for selling than for using.

For all the doom-and-gloom we see on television and in social media, we truly do live in marvelous times. There is a distinct possibility of man setting foot on Mars within my own lifetime. Innovations in medicine take place almost daily. As I type this I note a news story from this very day, that for the first time since records were kept, fewer than 10% of mankind now lives in extreme poverty. You could complain we've become soft in the face of such convenience, but I submit that our ancestors who came of age in the 1900s probably said the same of our grandparents, and those who grew up during the Civil War likely said the same of the turn-of-the-century folks as well. We should never aspire to "going back."

And yet, there is a value, at the very least, in preserving the knowledge and aptitudes of our forefathers for those times when the conveniences of modern life can, for the time being, no longer be taken for granted. So look around your own homes and livelihoods at the technology in them. You may find that some aspects of your life could stand to get just a bit more "D.I.R.T.y!"


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