As the owner of an old house, I am often in contact with tradies. Whenever the house gurgles, jams, drips, smells or begins listing like an intern at a Christmas party, I make my way to the fridge door, select a magnet and wonder how much, how long and, often, why me?
Hiring a tradie feels like a working-class revenge on the owners of capital except for the fact many tradies earn more than capitalists and knock off early when the surf’s up at their beach house. Indeed, it was when my plumber-tiler decided to take off on a fishing trip before finishing a grouting job that I thought: How hard could it be?
So I consulted YouTube and discovered it takes four minutes to teach a person how to grout tiles. By the time the tiler rang to say he’d returned from his fishing trip, I’d grouted a bathroom and saved several hundred dollars.
Since then I’ve become expert on repairing walls, installing modems, dealing with floor waste smells, clearing gutters (blower plus snorkel) troubleshooting my smartphone, operating new appliances and, with a bit more practice, I’ll soon be moonwalking.
Every day five billion people like me pick up skills from YouTube tutorials and every day a tradie sits by the phone wondering why nobody rings for those quick jobs that pay $180, plus call-out fees, and leave enough time in the schedule for an afternoon paddle.
The getting of skills isn’t just about saving money. There is a fundamental satisfaction in being able to solve your own problems. For too long people of my generation (OK, me) have felt overwhelmed by domestic crises; we’ve been forced to wait days or weeks for help to arrive, sweating over the noises, sounds and smells in the meantime; we’ve felt foolish when we’ve tried to describe the problem to the man with the tool belt and accepted meekly his reproof that, somehow, it was all our fault.
We’ve had tradie cringe for too long, so it’s no surprise we’re taking revenge in the digital age, scrolling for answers, swotting video tutorials and sending thumbs-up icons to masters of five-minute video. We all want to be independent of the service system, masters of our domain and finally freed from reliance on the fridge magnet. And, while it feels like a personal liberation, it’s more complicated than that.
Our claim to be expert amateurs isn’t confined to the tool shed. Across our lives we are claiming expert status, a fact that was first picked up a decade ago in the book The Cult of the Amateur and bookended last year with The Death of Expertise. These books and others of similar ilk describe how the democratisation of knowledge enabled by the internet has made experts of us or, perhaps, know-alls of us.
We are more sure of our own opinions, even if they are formed by Facebook feeds. We are better than the boss, even if we’ve been in the job for a couple of weeks. We are dismissive of the media if it doesn’t fit our world view. We are more confident of our scientific expertise than scientists because what would they know? And, yes, we are more willing to take our expertise from YouTube because how hard can it be?
Well, sometimes it is hard. Recently, when my old bath started shedding its skin, I realised that some jobs are simply too complex for an online tutorial, so I consulted an online aggregator to find a tradie with the appropriate skills and chose the cheapest quote. After the resurfacing expert had spent several hours in the bathroom, intermittently groaning and making hushed calls to a call-a-friend line, I popped my head into the bathroom to see how work was progressing. And there was my tradie watching a YouTube tutorial on bath resurfacing.
The results are what you’d expect from an online lesson, unless you happen to like rippled enamel that turns a purple hue when you use blue shampoo. The bath could be described as shabby chic or van Gogh with glaucoma (I’ve tried to pass it off as both to friends). Or it could be described as a lesson on when to call in the experts. But when I step into the blue-stippled bath, I can’t help thinking, how hard can it be? gmail.com