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.