Kit

I’ll explain the significance of the picture later, but for now, here’s the background: it’s me, on a Christmas morning a long time ago, in the basement of the Rome, NY house where we lived. Obviously, I’m adorable, but that’s not my point right now. The more important feature of the picture is the television at the right — it’s a Heathkit, and I’ll talk about it more below.

Ever since the iPad was announced & described, I’ve had the elements of a post swirling around in my head. My friend Ben last week wrote his, and it says a lot of the things that I was planning to say — you should go read it. I don’t necessarily think all of the same things are important, although I agree with him on most of it. For me, the essential point is that we — Americans, netizens, techies, almost any grouping that I can think of that’s meaningful — are at our best when we are makers, when we tinker, when we invent. We’re at our best when we’re taking things apart — whether it’s technology, laws, organizations — twisting them around to see how they work, tweaking them this way and that, and eventually creating something new.

Invention and entrepreneurship is at the heart of change and progress; hacking and tinkering is the thing that leads to that invention.

In a nutshell, what worries me about the trajectory of computing is not so much the emergence of tightly-controlled, non-tinkerable boxes, but the presumption that “normal people” don’t ever want to tinker, don’t want to be bothered with understanding how things work. I think it’s not true, really — certainly not for everyone — but I even think that this distinction between “normal people” and “tinkerers” or “techies” or “makers” is bogus at best, and really dangerously corrosive at worst.

So like Ben, I’ll get an iPad and am really excited about it from an interaction point of view (so please be clear, this is not an anti-iPad rant or an anti-Apple rant), and because it makes computing more human scale than ever — just like my Kindle has done. But I have real misgivings about it because of the controlled, closed stance that it’s starting from, and that other technology companies and technologists are adopting.

But first, a little bit of a story about my own background and evolution as an engineer, and how that happened at all.

When I was growing up, I remember my dad futzing around with everything. I remember him having a workshop in each of the houses we lived in (we moved around every few years as the Air Force stationed him in different places). I remember him working on our cars, our plumbing, and on our electrical systems in every house, on appliances, everything. I remember we seem to have built a deck for every house we ever lived in.

But I have this especially strong memory that until I was probably 10 or 11, every television we bought would come in a kit, as a box full of parts, that Dad would put together — it was always a project for him. Now, as a kid, having a Heathkit television was basically mortifying. I mean, I just wanted us to go buy a “normal” television at Sears like everyone else did. Our TV didn’t look like other folks, and being different as a kid is always a tough feeling.

And, in fact, our first computer was a Sinclair Z-80 that, you guessed it, came in a kit. Then, since there was no prepackaged software to run on it, I typed in a bunch of BASIC programs from BYTE magazine. Good times.

The upside of that awkward feeling as a kid, though, has been significant and long lasting. The upside is that I’ve never really viewed technology as something that was magic. It always had components that added up to the whole, that you could replace, that you could mix in different ways. I’ve always felt like technology (and organizations, and laws, and most everything else) comes to us in a way that we should be poking at it, thinking about how things work, wondering how to make things better, wondering what would happen if you removed certain things.

I think people will say to me: “Well, of course. You’re an engineer; you’re a tinkerer. That’s what engineers do — normal people don’t assume they can rewire their house, or swap out a power supply on their TV or change the way an operating system works.”

But I think that’s bogus. It’s not like I was born an engineer — the instinct to fiddle with things isn’t something we’re born with. I became a tinkerer because I was exposed to surfaces that allowed — that invited — it. I figured out that I liked tweaking and building and creating because I got a bunch of chances to do that stuff, from hardware to software and everything in between. I knew I could do it because Dad modeled that behavior, but also because the stuff we had around the house was inspectable and malleable.

Don’t misunderstand: I don’t think it’s a real problem that I can’t change the capacitors in my television today — I think that the most interesting surfaces for tinkering tend to evolve over time — and today the primary tinkering substrate appears to me to be the open web.

What I do think is a problem is that today, unless you buy the Apple SDK you can’t modify the software on the device that you already purchased — that jailbreaking is criminalized and actively fought against. That’s a problem not because $99 is so exorbitant, but because people who don’t know they could be tinkerers — who haven’t gotten the chances that they need — won’t ever get them in that situation. That’s a problem.

I do think there’s tremendous creativity being unleashed by the rise of the iPhone and next the iPad — that’s a great thing. And I don’t really have any problem with Apple building systems the way they want to — they create excellent products and experiences.

The thing that I’m worried about is this feeling that seems to be growing in technology communities that “normal people” — these non-tinkerers — don’t want to tweak things, shouldn’t be allowed to tweak things, can’t be trusted with technical matters. Many will choose not to, I completely agree. But we shouldn’t presume such.

We all have the potential inside us to make things. But we’re not born into the world as makers — the world around us — the people in it and the artifacts in it — help us to discover what we can be.

26 comments

  1. Thanks for this John. This made me think about my childhood, and the things I explored and played with – whether or not they led me to be an engineer or not, I felt that they were rewarding. It gave me that ability to just play with things, take them apart and ultimately not get frustrated when things go wrong.

    I’m thinking about our child that my wife and I are expecting and I hope that we can provide an environment where he will be able to explore, and tinker and take apart stuff… and I agree, I don’t think the way devices are heading is conducive to easy tinkering. Not that my son needs to be an engineer… I just want him to be comfortable figuring things out and making neat things.

    -d

  2. Great post and insights. Immediately made me think of a fantastic program that starts in our Kindergarten. Parents donate any old “device” they would otherwise throw away. The kids take turn choosing out of the “pile” and disassembling/reassembling and are required to ask questions on what the different parts do. On that table now is an old tape recorder, an old palm pilot, a toaster, you get the idea. Simple. Effective. A practical solution which starts to accomplish what you lived every day as a kid. If you don’t have this program in your school this fall, it would be a great suggestion or something to simply “implement” independently as a parent classroom volunteer

  3. Mozilla is unique in the fact that it’s mission is not to make a profit, but to advance the state of the web with open tinkerable technologies. Unfortunately, the open source/free source movement only can thrive because there is a source of standard hardware on which these programs can run. With the advent of closed computing platforms in various form factors (iphone, ipad, new microsoft phone, and the android is somewhat closed), this eco-system of hardware is narrowing.

    Wouldn’t it be possible to create open source hardware like there is open source software? It has been done already in a few places (like openMoko) but not very successfully. One of the reasons, I think, is that it is generally done in conjunction somehow with a private business that is not open like the source is.

    Open source software organizations are generally very open because there is no money or trade secrets involved. Generally the only contributed thing of monetary value is hosting which generally is not very expensive (and can even be gotten for free — eg. github, sourceforge, googlecode, etc). It runs by an ethic of lead by example because no one can compel anyone else to do anything (the organization is much like a small tribal/hunter-gatherer society).

    If someone organized an organization to produce hardware that was as open as it is for software production, then maybe we could produce open hardware that wouldn’t suck. The easiest thing to imagine would be to take an existing business that produces hardware and make it transparent, make it easily joinable, easy to make contributions to (both monetarily and with labor), and with much less hierarchy (if any).

    It would have to occupy a physical location and probably have to pay rent. It would require capital but it could be raised in such a way that it the investment in it would be limited in such a way that no small group of investors could call the shots. If for example the amount invested of each person had to be less than twice of the two investments smaller than that, then the investment pie would grow in a slow predictable growth path with many stakeholders. It could employee people but there would have to be limits on their powers as well so that people not employed still would feel like their input was important. Remember the organization will only work well if people feel like they can join in, contribute and feel valued right away.

    Because money (perhaps a lot of money) would be involved, the accounting system would have to be as transparent as the source code/hardware designs. That way people could monitor the money flows to make sure that no one is making off with the cash. This also would build trust in the organization and give a history of competency.

    I bring this up in this VERY LONG blog comment because I think that Mozilla would be perfectly suited to try an experiment like this.

    Thanks for listening,

    Steve

  4. >…the presumption that “normal people” don’t ever want to tinker…

    Newsflash: you and your father were not normal people.

    • Look, that’s my point, Tom – I know that I’m in a relatively small set now. However: fiddling, tweaking, making – that’s in *all* of us, but we need access, we need practice. People can decide not to do it, but too many (and an increasing number) are just not even getting exposed to it, because of the presumption that I think more and more technologists are making.

      • Its all part of the move to digital and miniaturization. Its a part of progress. In the old days, you could fix an electrical device by finding the broken resistors or some other part, and simply solder on the new device. Now, you toss out the whole device when it breaks. People also used to make their clothes and shoes. They may have had the same complaint when sears started selling stuff through catalogs.

  5. Every so often I hear a user experience designer proclaim that View Source has no business being in the browser. It’s implementation model instead of interface model, it serves a niche group of Web developers, and general users don’t want to see the mess before it gets rendered. But the irony is that without it, we wouldn’t even have much of a Web in the first place. For awhile the OLPC team was discussing actually having a physical View Source key on the keyboard. Most kids wouldn’t hit it, but for the few curious ones that did, it would quickly become the most important key on the keyboard.

  6. The earliest things I can remember always seem to involve my dad [1], electrical tape, wires, and Phillips-head screwdrivers. And then, there’s this I wrote a few years ago about my start in computing [2].

    In other words, in response to all the above: Me too. I know Apple’s marketing department would disagree, but I think that sense of technology as something rational and comprehensible—rather than magic—is an essential thing.

    Whether you and I are “normal people” or not, this concept of Open is worth pushing and defending.

    [1]: http://decafbad.com/blog/2007/09/25/dad#When:1:46:28PM
    [2]: http://decafbad.com/blog/2003/06/13/newly-digital

  7. They’ll be other products that will target the target audience that you’re in. I wouldn’t get too hung up on it. The iPad will probably be jailbroken (is that a word?) anyway.

  8. I share the view (with many others) that HTML + Javascript are the new Basic, and the iPad will be a GREAT platform for those tools, no developer license or permission from Apple needed.

    But the same world that has “closed” platforms like the iPad has Arduino, Android, Scratch, Processing, Lego Mindstorms, Python, and much etc. It’s a tinkering cornucopia!

    The only limit to what we (and our kids) can create is imagination.

  9. I to am a AF brat with a dad that built is own plane. I can remember he’d just hand me stuff and say ‘take this apart for me’.
    It was the ‘for me’ that made me feel important. As an IT manager at a local h.s I look forward to the iPad and it’s un-screwupable design set. We don’t have the staff or budget to just open up all the tech to the students. We can open up some of it and do but I need a simple network device that let’s staff and kids use the internet reliably with little or no learning curve. They don’t need a file system to dive into and that I need to straighten out. Have you read “Shop Class as Soul Craft”? This book pretty much sums up my pov.

  10. Actually, as bad as it may sound, one of the important things to encourage people to innovate and tinker is to put your money where your mouth is – e.g. buy an N900 instead of an iPhone. Even if the more open device may cost a bit more and may not have the latest said-to-be-cool thing like multitouch (on a screen that hardly even fits two fingers reasonably).

    If you buy an iPhone or an iPad, talking about how unfortunate it is that it’s not open doesn’t help much, as your own money finances the closed model you don’t want to have. bummer.

    That said, I fully agree with the rest of what you say. ;-)

    • Hey Robert — fair point — but I’m not against closed things in general, not at all. What I’m frustrated with is the increasing sense that normal people shouldn’t be allowed or trusted to muck about with tech. I think we need both open and closed systems, to tell you the truth.

  11. I know, why can’t things stay exactly the same as they did when I was kid? Or perhaps you would have preferred to live in your dad’s childhood times? No, I probably not.

    It seems to me you are forgetting all the great advantages this new technology has bought us, and focusing on some

    • That’s clearly not what I said or implied — what I’m trying to communicate is that there’s a growing attitude that “regular users” can’t or shouldn’t or won’t be bothered to understand how things work, and that we as technologists should keep them from being able to. That’s a condescending attitude, and I think it ultimately undermines the maker nature of our culture.

    • You are talking like closed system is equal to progress. I’d argue the opposite. Of course a hi-tech system will have limitations to how much you can tinker with the hardware. No one is arguing that, but I think the point of this article is that the IPhone, IPad and every other Iitem is unnecessary closed up, and that without any other reason than “protecting us” from meddling with things.

  12. I’m in an interesting situation in that I have a daughter who will, in a few years, hit that point at which they say girls drop out of science and math, while at the same time I work at a place that has a mission and spends a fair bit of money to encourage STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. So I’m thinking this bit through on a different level and from the standpoint of someone who is sensitive to the problem, but is not an engineer.

    I do what I can (a bit of woodworking in the house, having her “help” when I upgrade her computer, etc.) and we encourage her whenever she strays toward anything related to STEM, even if it’s only constructing her used-box cities in her room. But the earlier poster is right in that the direction of hardware isn’t helping. Apple didn’t start the trend toward magic boxes, it’s just a very good practitioner. Even if I were to let her at the kinds of things I took apart — a broken radio, for example — there’s not much to see in there anymore.

    As full disclosure, I work at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, and the program I mentioned is called eCYBERMISSION (https://www.ecybermission.com/). It’s only one of the things we do, and there are others in the Army involved as well (check out http://www.usaeop.com/). I’m in public affairs at RDECOM, though not in any capacity with those two programs. I got to your article via hacker news from my kitchen table.

    And lastly: Go Rome. I’m a native who left at 17 and hasn’t lived there since, but it’s always nice to see it mentioned.

  13. Hey John, great to see you discuss “hackability” and why it’s important. I’ve given a couple of talks in Europe about this and a series of blog posts is on its way.

    See http://www.slideshare.net/nitot/hackability-what-it-means-why-its-important in the mean time.

    –Tristan

    Nitpick: “our first computer was a Sinclair Z-80″ I think you mean ZX80. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZX80 (I had a ZX-81 for Christmas myself in… 1981)

  14. John…I’m a little late to this post but largely agree with your assessment. It made me wonder what other domains exist where tinkering is still a big part of the experience. One of my daughters friends is the son of a physician. His dad is in the process of building an airplane..actually a new wing design and the son invites Shannon over to work on electronic/science projects…so there are still tinkerers around. There also seems to be a cadre of high school students who tinker with robots and game/graphics software so there might be hope. As an aside, my dad was constantly working on steam boilers/pipe fitting for our flower growing nursery. I ended up building the family stereo system, some test equipment, and my amateur radio system…all from Heathkits. I didn’t become an engineer, just love to hang out with them :)

  15. Good to have bumped onto your blog and met you.