Knife in the Machine: A New Idiom

In the cafeteria at my university, there was a soft-serve ice cream machine with the standard chocolate, vanilla, and chocolate-vanilla swirl. At some point, the swirl part was broken, so they took the lever off of that part of the machine. There was an unspoken assumption that the machine would be fixed, but the cafeteria management was taking a long time to restore the machine to its former glory. I am not sure how the thing was broken, but for a long time, we had to add chocolate and vanilla to our bowls separately and simply imagine how they would be together. One day, someone found a solution: use a knife as a replacement lever! Some enterprising individual found a way to fix the problem, and they bypassed the way that things were “supposed to be done” with a jury rigged solution.

People can be very creative under pressure from an addiction or simple desire for entertainment. For instance, who do you think came up with the idea of tethering a cell phone to a laptop to get internet? It probably was not the cell phone companies. Where did crystal meth come from? You have to have strong motivations to figure out whether Drano, gasoline, Sudafed and some other chemicals would make a great thing to smoke when cooked. Also consider various uses of the internet: I heard discussions among college friends about how to get cable or satellite TV in their dorm rooms. They were forced to use something called a Slingbox to get satellite TV from their parents’ houses over the internet because of rules against setting up satellite TV connections in the dorms–and this is at a college that already suffers from bandwidth problems.

I propose a new expression to describe this phenomenon, when addictions (both harmful and benign) and the drive for entertainment push people to unusual degrees of creativity: putting a knife in the machine. These enterprising usages of ordinary objects can often overwhelm the normal system of supply and demand for certain products–just look at the economics behind the production of corn for ethanol fuel or the problem of internet bandwidth at my old college and what people want to use it for–and they highlight the deep cravings of their inventors. When my fellow students wanted the chocolate-vanilla swirl, they put a knife in the machine to get it. They did not simply jury rig a solution to a mechanical problem, they transcended the creative inertia found in bureaucratic management–the cafeteria management simply did not understand the desire of the people for chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream!

To sum up, here are the essential requirements for something to be counted as putting a knife in the machine:

  1. The problem has to come from a suppressed or shunted desire.
  2. The solution to the problem has to be jury rigged.
  3. Wider adoption of the solution significantly affects the system of supply and demand for the materials used in the jury rigged solution.
People do creative things when what they want is denied to them, and sometimes their efforts truly deserve to be commemorated as a sign of the latent image of God impressed upon us that works its way out in sometimes the most unusual circumstances. The other lesson I want to draw from this phenomenon is this: people, get your priorities straight!
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