Left To Our Own Devices
Julian Bleecker (julian [at] techkwondo.com)
Making our own stu — what does it mean, how do you do it?
There is a sense that the ability to make our own electronic/
digital/computational “stu” is not just fun, but has some larger
purpose that’s related to impulses of DIY sensibilities. Making
your own devices has a implicit cultural and political message.
That is, we can be “productive consumers” as Ruth described
yesterday. We can produce the things we need or enjoy or desire
based on our own principles, ethics, senses of fun and so forth.
This I think is very good, and very important.
Making mistakes or probing the boundaries of what works and what doesn’t is a powerful way to
learn, and, mostly, gain conﬁdence and mastery. So “left to our own devices” also has this sense of
learning, or understanding about things that were previously a kind of black art.
1. Sketching As Critique
And so what does this mean for “sketching in hardware”? I want to suggest three things, or
observations that I think describe what “sketching in hardware” is about. Starting at the highest
level is “sketching as critique.” I think there’s a kind of creative or cultural criticism that goes on
when sketching hardware.
“Wouldn’t It Be Cool If..”
Approach To Sketching
The “Wouldn’t It Be Cool If..” approach to making things. This is design that is driven by the
imagination. I notice many projects that suggest this motivation — for instance, it would be cool to
have a mobile phone that has no features except to make telephone calls. In fact, it might not even
have a display, like an old analog phone. Why do we do this? Part of it is to demonstrate hardware
sketching acumen and skills. But I think there’s also an implicit criticism about the way things are
that suggests a response. Making thigns dierent than they are.
“What Would The World Be Like If..?”
Approach To Sketching
The “What Would The World Be Like If..?” approach to sketching is kind of like writing science ﬁction
by making things that ask what would the world be like if.. These are things that are not necessarily
“rational” in the way we often think about rationality. But they are meant to provoke questions
about certain aspects of life in the same way that the best of science ﬁction does. It forces us to
consider ourselves and our ways of living by helping us ﬁnd a partial perspective that is outside of
our routine, quotidian lives.
This is the World’s Slowest Instant Messenger, or “Slow Messenger” for short. You can send an
instant message to it over, for instance AOL IM, and the message from your buddy will reveal itself
over many hours or even days, one character at a time.
Why do this? To imagine what such a world might be like if we communicated slower than we do
today. The reason for doing this is more as a thought experiment imagining a dierent kind of
world — either a science ﬁction world where things are a little dierent, for instance a world in
which slowly unfolding messages are considered a polite, perhaps regal form of exchange, rather
than the terse, abrupt, disruptive “fast” mode of communication. It’s also evocative of letter writing
traditions, where much time was spent carefully composing a letter that communicated much more
than the short message styles of digital exchange. It’s a sci-ﬁ device. But, it needs more than just a
story about it — you need to create the device and live with it and share it with people and friends
to learn more about the concept.
2. Sketching as Refinement of Ideas
“Sketching” implies of course making meaning through inscriptions — drawing or writing ideas, as
in sketching the outlines of a thought that might be developed further, beyond the inscription. For
instance, it might become something slightly more durable and enduring — into something that
you can create and share with others. Reﬁnement.
You can easily go from a prototype that’s a bit messy and experimental..
Reﬁne that through a more formalized design that starts to close the gap between prototype and an
“end product” whatever that might be.
And doing the construction oneself is important — part of the trade craft is a familiarity with the
Being done, and reﬁning is a rewarding part of the process of making your own devices.
3. Sketching as Creating Our Own
Creating our own culture of devices is one way of ﬁnally ending the myth that there are things
called “end products” — it indicates that everything that consumers may consume are always in ﬂux
in many terms. I don’t know much about product design, but I do know that designs evolve
continuously particularly in the hands of those who are in the cycle of evolving them.
4. Sketching To Make Toolkits
1. Need to be crafted carefully so that you don’t have a glut of things that all look a like — the China
Syndrome of knock-os and copied ideas. This is a bad thing except insofar as it teaches
fundamentals. When tool-kits become ways to make the same thing over and over again, creativity
2. Toolkits are not software APIs only. Sparkfun is a toolkit because it provides the resources to
learn, not just an interface for connecting to some sort of sensor.
Tom Igoe’s a toolkit. Arduino.cc is a toolkit.
I believe that “Sketching” as we’re talking about it here is a craft, and crafts take time and discipline
to master and it can be hard. But that mastery is important to moving toward a position of creative
abilities. Tools should not substitute for community engagement. Rather than just using “turnkey”
tools at some point you want to participate with the ultimate toolkit — the community.