Jewish World Review August 8, 2001 / 19 Menachem-Av, 5761

Ian Shoales

Ian Shoales
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Consumer Reports

Garage Dearth! -- I HAVE a theory about our economic downturn. For years, any successful high tech company was described as beginning as a "garage start-up." In garages throughout Silicon Valley, and across the nation, enthusiastic geeks were hobbling together microprocessors, killer apps, and video games right there next to Dad's power tools.

Well, we don't have garages any more. We park on the street, in car ports. Those lucky few who rent, lease, or own a garage have it packed to the ceiling with cancelled checks and old Vanity Fairs. There's barely room for a car, much less a workstation to create the interactive artifacts of tomorrow.

America, what happened? Has the garage gone the way of the log cabin and the hula hoop? Tom Edison worked long thankless hours at his workbench to create the proto-garage for the inventors of the twentieth century. Was it all for nothing? Wasn't the first Apple computer built in Steve Jobs' garage using only a shoebox and hairpins? Sure it was! When Microsoft formed in Bill Gates' garage, he didn't even have a car. The Wright brothers built their first airplane in the family garage, before the car was even invented. NASA began in a garage in Houston, building the first space capsule out of refrigerator parts and some old liquid oxygen Mom had lying around. What about Nirvana? Wasn't that the ultimate garage band? We are experiencing a severe garage shortage. Is it any wonder science and music are in such terrible shape?

Remember the refrain we used to chant? "We can put a man on the moon but we can't-- fix the potholes on my street/end poverty as we know it/program a VCR/fill in the blank?" We must face facts. Not only can't we put a man on the moon any more, we can't even get him in a garage.

What whining catchall catchphrase will replace the man-on-the-moon metaphor? "We can take pictures of comet damage on Jupiter, but we can't make a fat free hot dog?" "We can build a scalable b-to-b business solution, but we can't make a truly odor-free kitty litter?" They just don't cut it.

Without garages to brainstorm in, where will tomorrow's catchphrases come from?

Now it's been revealed that the man-on-the-moon mission was almost aborted at the very last second. Technology failed our astronauts. They had to put the module down by hand. An heroic astronaut pilot gripped a sweaty joystick and crashlanded a screaming bucket of bolts in the noiseless vacuum of space. If our flyboys hadn't practiced many long hours in their garage at home, none of this would have been possible.

Sure, the moonshot gave us Tang, laptop computers, and Mylar. Yes, it was Big Science at its biggest; microprocessing met the universe. But let's not forget what made it all possible, the lowly garage, and all it represents: stick-to-it-iveness, the old can-do spirit, thrift, humility!

Every day, in our brave new world of telecommunications, I see smartly dressed young professionals carrying little cards that proclaim them to be media consultants. They're just cyber-liars. You don't have a garage to consult in, Mr. Interactive Multimedia.

There is hope, however. A few issues back, WIRED informed me that old analog synthesizers are hot items among amateur music producers. Even if you can't afford one, there are CDs with samples of every old synth there is. As WIRED put it, "Load the sounds into your own sampler, and you have instant faux analog."

Can't we manufacture instant faux virtual reality analog garages? Those of you with actual garages, better get to work on this pronto. To put it plainly: without garages, we have no future. They say you've got to be cruel to be kind. Sometimes, I'm afraid you've got to be digital to be analog.

JWR contributor Ian Shoales is the author of, among others, Not Wet Yet: An Anthology of Commentary. Comment by clicking here.


08/06/01: That Big Clock
08/02/01: Stop the pop!
07/31/01: Catchphrase history of the world
07/26/01: The Bride of Science
07/23/01: That java jive
07/17/01: Homogenized hegemony
07/13/01: Applying Newton's First Law of Physics to textbooks
07/10/01: The dumb and the dead

© 2001, Ian Shoales