The thing I hated most about being a child in the 1950s was that you couldn’t just open the cupboard. There was a knack to it. There was a knack to everything. Nothing fitted. Nothing worked. Nothing did what it was designed to do without some further persuasion, the application–the added value–of massively embedded and localised knowledge you didn’t have. There was a knack to opening it and a knack to closing it again. There was a knack to winding it up, or getting it to actually supply electricity to the bulb or stick to the inner tube. It was just a knack. There was a knack to getting it started in the morning. If you didn’t have the knack, you were already in arrears. Your place in the hierarchy was low. The reproducible was, for you, non-reproducible. This wasn’t just some door your father had bodged, some deflated bike tyre that would inflate for everyone in the family but you. It turned out to be everything. Entire factories–transport infrastructures–entire industries–depended on people who had got the knack of not very well designed, not very reliable machinery. School was learning that to “to learn” meant to learn the knack. There were apprenticeships that taught only the knack, and indeed knackism. Entire disciplines–like toolmaking and all kinds of assembly–were run by instinct and by eye; they were run on, fucked up and then solved by the knack. In fact they had been devised to run on the knack; it was built-in, it was the crap code that lay underneath everything. Once you got the knack of it, you were fine. Until I found language I never got a knack. But I expect you knew that. A weird side effect of growing up without the knack was that I came to loathe even slightly broken or inefficient stuff and now have difficulty keeping it near me. I understand the problematics of throwaway tech, but I’m afraid understanding them won’t cure the neurosis. Next: rationing, especially of chocolate.
What tech stuff is not broken? I prefer Linux because then I can at least learn the knack of fixing it. Tech stuff that appears not to be broken breaks the knack of recognizing what is broken. In the end, perhaps there is only the knackering.
I’d had it with all that by the age of seven or sooner. I could see which way it was going. It left its mark on me as a deep and presiding depression. Except for language, I never got the knack of getting the knack. For some of us age is just such a fantastic relief from all that: if I want to I can just set fire to an ill-fitting shirt button, you see, or the whole shirt, & don’t have to sit there listening to lessons about patience & getting the knack.
What’s Linux, by the way? Just joking.
Buttons are a broken and malicious technology designed to afflict the aged progressively until they agree to clambour aboard the ice floe or join the asteroid mining crew.
Quite the reverse. Knack-based systems are designed to afflict the young, not the old. Age is, as I said, the relief from all that. No longer any need to pretend, the way the four and the fourteen year old are forced to pretend, that the patient acquisition of the knack is the central exercise of a natural epistemology, an inevitable way of gaining knowledge & exercising agency. As you get older you simply begin to expect things to work, and you stop investing your patience & your intelligence in things (or, for that matter, ideas) that don’t.
Ah, I see. So not the lack of the knack but the nock that clicks the nib that writes does the needful.
Not so sure the knack is a thing of the past, as such. As an ‘aesthetic,’ which is of course the wrong word, it is still accessible for those who can’t afford anything better.
It may be an income bracket. Above a certain range, one has proved one’s moral worth, and can now purchase goods (even if second hand) which serve the stated purpose acceptably, little or no knack required. Knowing what to buy, or being able to buy, the only admission criteria. One can learn all of that without realising.
Sometimes I’m inclined to believe that such things are designed by a higher intelligence, not to work acceptably so much as to train humans in particular path ways of thinking. Microsoft only the most visible intimation of this other intelligence.
That it doesn’t supply what it’s users want exactly, isn’t really relevant. It works. But to get from it what one suspects is possible requires the knack. It has functions that aren’t needed, leads users through a maze to the inevitable conclusion that other functions would be much more desirable, and assures them by it’s prevalence that learning to think like it’s designers may be the only way to succeed, to be found worthy. But by whom? Using something else entirely feels like defeat and is certainly impractcal. All this is really metaphor.
This latter point is perhaps the hidden design of the modern world. Accept, learn the knack, be accepted. Train oneself in the arcane aesthetic of how one believes it might work (not a science or a skill, definitely an art) or be relegated to the shelf of forgotten things, accessible only by a dead escalator lit by flickering CRT monitors at the end of a disused street somewhere in Wrexham. No further locational details disclosed.
I feel this explains one aspect of my struggle with a 1952 Royal Enfield. Devised to run on a knack indeed. But its failing mechanisms could be mended with progressively wilder contraptions. When I bought it, it had an old sock in place of the oil filter.
I feel that The Knack is live and well in the 21st Century and my relationship to it is ambivalent.
The backstory is eight years as an AV technician. An occupation that functions through the acquisition of numerous knacks, because the technology involved is idiosyncratic. While the user interfaces of more generic devices might tend toward a slickness of design that gives an illusion of intuitiveness, more specialised equipment tends to drag back towards a hundred local solutions. Our ongoing task was to streamline these interfaces where possible so that academics would leave stuff alone and just allow it to work. This usually involved covering up or locking away anything that wasn’t as simple as an on/off button. And even those in many cases. However in the thousand instances where this wasn’t possible, it was a matter of knowing the knack and trying to respond appropriately without embarrassing or upstaging the academics, or worse management.
Of course the irony of the situation was that these thousand instances where the knack was necessary were what kept us in a job. Managers dreamed of a fully streamlined solution where things would just run themselves, but where bad contractor installations and an industry dedicated to specialised equipment are part of the equation, often all that was keeping the slick illusion of corporate efficiency running was a guy with a remote control getting in there fast and unbolloxing the system every fifteen minutes.
So I guess my contention is that the further we move from consumer gadgets, the veneer of user experience is stripped away to reveal a thousand bodges, ten thousand cupboards that require a local knowledge of sweet spots and microclimates, and suddenly that overall crapness of the 50s never really went away. The bricoleur thrives through developing a feel for that, but is in the end exploited further up the food chain by someone who understands the knack of how to lever open the bigger cookie cupboards of management and corporate funding.
And sure, on another level, the English language is one of the most knack-driven economies there is. At some point you found that this particular cookie jar could be accessed and the rest is history.
My concern is that once every knack is ironed out of the machinery and we’re all streamlined out of employment, unless some enlightened soul is kind enough to install a luxury fully-automated communism, we’re all superfluous to requirements.
hi, shem: the whole of the 50s & most of the 60s seemed like a constant struggle with a 1952 Enfield. Even the weather. Brilliant.
Reading this and flashing back to my father attempting to start his Morris Marina on a damp morning. The acme of knackism, the effort required to commence and sustain movement, with that unhappy thing, was like urban voodoo to my five year old eyes..
Really enjoyed this sharp reflection on “the knack,” one of those assets we all understand, struggle to articulate and wish, more often, we possessed. And I loved your last line about what’s to come; it has a random feel that delights.
The Knack …and How to Get It, a 1965 movie by director Richard Lester was the basic technique/style for the Beatles films
Awesome and insightful
What a great read with some intellectual wits
I’m a nineties kid but I’ve always liked it when people had the knack. It’s annoying when it isn’t me, yes, but there’s something a little magical when you see a problem you struggled with solved by someone else with just a few taps with a knuckle and a swift kick to the engine cover. It’s a little like watching a wizard cast a spell 😊
There is a knack in everything in life… want a girlfriend, everyone would give you a knack to that too…
Really nice one
Well, you do have a real knack for describing the knack, I’ll tell ya that for free.
Need your help
This is why i still remember my first bike, only i could start the damn thing in winter. There was a knack to it. You nailed it. Thanks for reminding me of my first bike. Btw how do i like this post ? first timer here.
Come to India, we still have that knack(jugaad in hindi) for everything. Indians are known for having that knack(jugaad).
Well, it’s only natural selection. The elite gets to break the knackery and design new ones whereas the mediocre has to learn to survive or as u say, lay in arrears. In any case, the cycle of knack never ends.
And not one mention of “My Sharona.”
I don’t know, young people today – and the cupboards don’t open like they use to, either.
Very well worded… Completely agree with your thoughts on learning the knacks as sometimes that could be really annoying and may not be that interesting at all.
So enjoyable!!! And absolutely true!!! 😘👏🏾😂😂❤️
Humor Will Save Us!!! 👏🏾❤️😂
The older I get, the more I’ve come to believe that the knack of life is ignoring the knack of all it brings.
Ha, so true – the bloody vending machine, the hickey garden gate, the washing machine door all require that special knack. From what I’ve read of its origins and earlier meanings I’m sure it was designed by someone with a mischievous streak that rigs things to challenge the next person needing to use it. Or maybe it’s waiting to be added to the book of Murphy’s Law.
Oh yes….. the memories! But it still goes on 🙂 I hadn’t thought about all this for years, all my childhood in one blog, clever!
theres definitely a knack to swiping a certain way on your smartphone though hahahaha
This and the comments were brilliant. Farming equipment still requires the knack for sure.
One person’s knack, another person’s skill. You have a knack for writing.