To make ends meet, my dad was a real hustler. He had been a tall, good-looking center for the high school basketball team, had lots of girlfriends, and was super popular. But like so many others he was drafted into the Vietnam War and returned depressed, a condition that only increased as he grew older.
At first, he worked with his father, my grandfather, in the construction business. But working for someone else wasn’t for him, so he tried his hand as an entrepreneur—a gas station and convenience store, a trucking company, and later a variety of construction companies. Even though my dad was physically imposing—six feet two, north of three hundred pounds, and incredibly strong from a lifetime playing sports and doing hard labor—he really excelled at the more intellectual side of business. He could bid on a job with shocking speed and accuracy, even before computers were accessible to small-business managers. Even so, those business ventures didn’t work out, and we went bankrupt—twice.
To this day, I can remember packing up all our belongings, loading them into the back of a crappy blue Ford Granada, and driving away from the house my father had built with his own hands but could no longer afford. And even now, despite the success I’ve been fortunate to have in the tech industry, debt makes me anxious; I am loath to take any on, even when financial advisers tell me it would be advantageous to do so. What I understand now is that the drama surrounding our family went much further and much deeper.
We were hardly alone. The small town where we lived — Gladys, Virginia — was starting to die economically caught in the crosshairs of technological and political turmoil. I can remember when everyone had jobs, and nearby downtown Brookneal, Virginia was so busy that there were stoplights, department stores, a local paper full of news. But one by one the textile mills began to close as jobs and factories moved to where labor was cheaper. The big buildings that once bustled with textile workers sat empty. Demand for tobacco dwindled, and the nearby auctions where farmers brought their crop to sell were shuttered. The big furniture plants were the last to close as manufacturing gradually moved overseas.
Downtown just disappeared. The local businesses and even the newspaper became shadows of their former selves.
What I remember most, though, and still feel deeply, is the community. People cared about each other. No matter our economic situation, we gave vegetables to others from our garden. My dad stacked firewood for the old church ladies so they would have fuel to heat their homes in the winter. We helped where we could, and folks helped us in return. There was genuine compassion, and I like to think I’ve carried that with me as an engineer, a manager, and the cofounder with my wife of a family foundation. Despite the hard times, if you were paying close attention— and I was—there were still a few good jobs around. The industrial engineer who manages the plant and the back-office manager, for example. There were still jobs for those with the education and training to perform the most valuable tasks.
In a small Southern town like Gladys, I was considered kind of weird because I’d rather read the World Book Encyclopedia or sit around and contemplate the meaning of infinity. It was a religious town, yet I was always asking in Sunday school about dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. I was a ball of skepticism and a constant agitator for proof. Most of the answers that I got from the adults to my (undoubtedly irritating) questions were terribly unsatisfying. Even at a young age, I had an abiding faith in the scientific method, in conclusions and theories based on evidence and reproducible experiments. This came naturally to me, but it also was nurtured in a tiny workshop in central Virginia.
Today, when I read about the plight of blue-collar and rural workers, I can’t help but think about Shorty Tibbs, my grandfather. It was awesome being the grandson of Shorty Tibbs because everyone in Campbell County seemed to know and care about him, love that improbably extended to me when strangers learned who I was. His real name was Elwood, but his shipmates during World War II nicknamed him for his height, and it stuck. He had a flair for the dramatic. His ship was hit by a Japanese kamikaze fighter plane, which narrowly missed the engine room belowdecks where he was on duty. He returned from the war to work on the family farm and lost his hand in a terrible accident involving a mechanical corn harvester.
Despite the setback, Shorty could fix anything, so he decided to start a small appliance repair shop in Brookneal, just down the road from our house in Gladys. Walking into that dirty, dusty shop as a kid was what I imagined walking into heaven must be like. From the old pinewood floors to the rafters high above were piled old, broken sewing machines, dishwashers, washing machines, and all manner of electronic and mechanical gadgets and widgets in various states of disrepair. One of my favorites among many odd antiques was a foot-powered sewing machine, fully functional but of no practical use by the 1970s, like something from the Island of Misfit Toys.
I must have inherited my grandfather’s curiosity because his shop was one of the most magical places for me to visit. When we designed our home in California years later, I had the architects reclaim some oak floorboards from a nearby barn to remind me of my grandfather’s shop. I used to watch my grandfather when he worked, not realizing then that his approach was very much that of an engineer or scientist. He would examine a broken piece of consumer technology like a toaster or blender and, through a process of elimination, begin to diagnose what was still functioning and what was broken. Like a computer scientist, he used abstraction to suppress the more complex details that were not relevant to the problem he was addressing. There was no need to work inside the electric motor or heating element, for example, if the problem was one level above that.
A broken toaster or blender was just a black box—completely opaque—to the stymied customer who brought it to my grandfather, but for him it was a puzzle to be solved. He could take the problem all the way down through the layers of complexity to bare metal if he had to. For him there was no abstraction boundary. He would just punch through it. There were always new components and functionality to be discovered. He was using the scientific method, an empirical approach, and that inspired me. If he were alive today, I have no doubt that he would fix the advanced hardware and software that now comes in gadgets of every kind. If he didn’t understand something, he’d soon master it after watching a few YouTube videos, and employ his dogged persistence. As inspiring as his engineering feats were, today I am equally enthralled by the larger lessons he taught me. At one level, he showed me the value of making things work, converting something that had been useless into something that was made useful again. Like everyone in our community, he worked incredibly hard. He was self-reliant, and believed in taking care of people. He made the life he wanted, and always did right by his family and neighbors. To me, this is a very American story. Whether you swing a hammer for a living, repair appliances, or come to this country looking for opportunity, these values are part of our American dream.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from my grandfather, and the greatest gift that he gave me, was his approach to problem solving. He was unflappably confident that he could figure things out, that each exploration of a problem, no matter how frustrating, helped him come to a better understanding of himself and his relationship with the world around him, and that human need itself is what makes a problem worth solving. It’s this understanding of problem solving and my own humanity that has never once made me wonder what my role is in a world with increasingly capable AI.
I’m a human with curiosity about the fascinating canvas of nature and people and our complex creations, with compassion for the problems other humans have, and with a desire to help solve them. To varying extents, this is something we all share.
AI is a useful tool for exploring that curiosity and for solving human problems. Neither it, nor anything else, will ever take away that curiosity and compassion. There are a lot more people with hidden and untapped technical skills like Shorty Tibbs out there in job-deprived rural America and the Rust Belt.
Kevin Scott is the author of “Reprogramming the American Dream: From Rural America to Silicon Valley―Making AI Serve Us All,” from which this essay has been adapted.