Curiosity in the Face of Immensity

David Macaulay has spent more than three decades explaining the way things work.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“I grew up when you could stand in an elevator and sort of watch how parts of it worked,” the author and illustrator David Macaulay told me. “And maybe there was even somebody in the elevator who turned the crank, which was a physical movement.” Macaulay has made it his life’s task to explain technology to young people in books like The Way Things Work. But in recent decades, the world has made his job much harder, as technologies and systems important to daily life have vanished behind glossy surfaces, or into the ether. “Eventually,” Macaulay said of the elevator, the operator is “there to press a button for you. And then, eventually, they’re not even there, and you press the button.” The process, like many others, has gone from visible to hidden all within one person’s lifetime.

Macaulay’s school-age readers have fewer and fewer everyday chances to witness the technologies of their world in motion. In addition to co-writing The Way Things Work with Neil Ardley, Macaulay has also published a primer on the human body (The Way We Work) as well as shorter books on individual masterworks of human engineering (books about cathedrals, pyramids, toilets). Now Macaulay has updated The Way Things Work, which was first published in 1988 and revised in 1998. The Way Things Work Now is longer than its predecessors; it has a whole new section on all things digital. How does the Macaulay approach translate to the unseeable?

Surprisingly well, it turns out. As the complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman writes in his recent book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, the intricacy of modern technologies—the code behind; the guidance system used to land planes—has made them opaque, even to people whose job it is to work with them. For years, adults have extended the promise of total knowledge to students who apply themselves to understanding physical technologies like the steam engine, or the airplane. (It’s a very 20th-century idea!) Arbesman’s recommendation for adults and children living in a newly complex world is that we stop worrying about completism and start approaching technology in the same way field biologists think of their studies of nature: observing phenomena, putting them in categories, all the while anticipating that you can never know everything. The idea is to adopt a persistent curiosity in the face of immensity—not always an easy thing to do.

Macaulay’s books, which seem at first glance to promise that old model of total knowledge—this is The Way Things Work Now; read and you shall know all—are actually perfect for this kind of open-minded, open-ended approach to learning. As Macaulay told me, the idea behind the books is not necessarily to teach the reader each and every aspect of technologies like the radio transmitter or e-reader; rather, Macaulay hopes the experience of browsing the book will leave you with a sense of the way things relate to each other and a curiosity to know more. For him, fomenting that curiosity about technology is political: “At a certain level of complexity you kind of stop asking questions,” he said. “There are simply too many. And I think that’s a problem. I think that’s kind of dangerous. We become oblivious to the things we take for granted.”

Also, to Arbesman’s point, Macaulay has always treated technology like it’s nature. In his Way Things Work books, machines are grouped as families, so that, for example, a dentist’s drill appears on the same page as a windmill (a “miniature descendent” of the mill, the drill has a small air turbine inside of it, turned by compressed air), and a pen on the same page as carburetors and fuel-injection systems (all of which use principles of pressure to work). In trying to understand and explain digital technology, Macaulay applies the same kinds of relational concepts, looking for places where the digital connects to the physical.

David Macaulay.
David Macaulay.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“I will occasionally take apart a device,” Macaulay told me when I asked how he researched the new digital section of the book. “The thing I have in front of me right now is an Apple TV block that finally stopped performing.” For older editions, he took apart keyboards. He has several smashed game controllers in his studio and says his favorite part of these is the joystick: “It’s mechanical, a universal joint. The kind of universal joint you find in your car.” By building bridges between the digital and the physical, Macaulay tries to extend the sense that technology is a world governed by evolution—a vast world, to be sure, but one that works by a comprehensible system.

Another hallmark of the Way Things Work books is the gently humorous alternate history Ardley and Macaulay have created to illustrate physical principles. In each section, framing stories are narrated by a traveling scientist—a sort of Renaissance man—who goes from village to village, observing people’s everyday practices. This world is a medieval-prehistoric-early modern mashup, where mammoths live alongside humans, and serve as their companions, beasts of burden, and experimental subjects. The mammoths’ bodies show how force, pressure, and static electricity work.

In the new edition, the mammoth-world frame gives voice to the confusion the reader might feel in the face of the new technology. The digital section’s guide is a totally befuddled mammoth, the last of his species. This beast enters the Digital Domain—drawn as an actual castle—and submits to being recorded, measured, and reproduced digitally. The mammoth is uncomprehending but so lonely that he allows this to happen. The story is strangely sad. At one point, the man who rules the Digital Domain—known only as Bill—puts the animal into a virtual reality simulation, where he sees a lady mammoth, created using all the information the Digitals have taken from his body, approaching him. At first, he’s excited; then, “devastated,” “cheated,” and “humiliated,” the mammoth is miserable. Bill tells him this is “progress.” The fable delicately conveys some of the sense of loss an older generation might feel around the digital realm.

The downside of the Macaulay “technology-as-nature” approach has always been the way it separates technology from actual human history (not the alternate mammoth-world). There is a section at the end of The Way Things Work Now that offers capsule histories of the way the technologies in the book developed in the real world. This section leaves me wanting way more. “The first people to fly were Chinese criminals lifted by large kites” as a form of punishment. (!) “Preserving food by keeping it in an ice-filled pit is an art some 4,000 years old.” (!!) “The Roman emperor Nero was one of the first people to use a lens when he watched performances in the arena through a fragment of emerald that just happened to be of the right shape to benefit his poor eyesight.” (!!!) These are the kinds of stories that worked to get me interested in technology when I was a young reader, much more intrigued by narrative and human detail than by the workings of an engine. To each his own! And I know plenty of young readers do respond well to the Macaulay approach—the illustrator told me he hears from many engineers who were first inspired by his books.

The book’s choice to present technology as its own ecology, or as part of an alternate history, gets sticky when you consider the real-world moral impact of many of these machines and systems. For example, if you read the page about unmanned aerial vehicles and drones in the new edition, the book tells you: “They are sometimes used in situations where it would be too dangerous to send a human pilot, such as exploring the mouth of a volcano or flying into enemy territory in a warzone.” A page on fallout notes that a nuclear war would be a disaster: “Climatic changes, shortage of food, and the threat of disease would make life above ground a grim business.”* But this page is illustrated by a cross-section of a fallout shelter populated by a group of seemingly merry people having a birthday party. On the page on airport security scanners, the passenger being scanned is a funny-looking rabbit, and the officer looking at the monitor is a mammoth in a comically official hat.

For a intellectual project that’s seemingly straightforward—teach kids about tech!—the making of every new Way Things Work turns out to be full of fraught decisions about citizenship and responsibility. I asked Macaulay how he thinks about discussing the ethics of technology in the book. “Let’s just explain to the best of our ability what it is that all this stuff does,” he told me. “I can’t think of a better preparation for fighting the dark side.”

*Correction, Oct. 5, 2016: The original version of this review misquoted a passage from The Way Things Work Now. They were “climatic” changes, not “climactic” changes. (Return.)

The Way Things Work Now by David Macaulay. HMH Books for Young Readers.

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