We should all know how things work.
Background: I wrote most of this essay about 4 years ago when the iPad first came out (here’s the original, although it will seem dated), but with the rise of efforts like Codecademy and Code.org, and my own sons growing up, I’ve been thinking more and more about technical literacy and how we can help more people understand how things work.
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.
The thing that prompted me to write this piece initially was the launch of the iPad, and the conversations that it started about whether as a culture we’re headed towards permission-only innovation or not — my friend Ben wrote a piece about how he felt about it, and more broadly how he felt about the restrictions that Apple was putting on how people could build things for it. He felt a lot of the same things then that I felt, although I didn’t agree with all of them.
But since that launch several years ago, many things have changed.
Apple has opened up (slowly, carefully, probably not as much as they could or should, but nevertheless moving in a better direction). Kickstarter & Indiegogo became enablers for a huge generation of hardware hacking & helped products like the Oculus get into the world. Incubators like Highway 1 emerged. And the Maker movement got stronger & stronger. It’s been an incredible renaissance, and I’m encouraged by it.
For me, the essential point was — and remains — 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 (still) 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.
Here’s 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. He was just constantly working on building & taking apart & understanding & rebuilding. Not to mention repairing a bunch of things that his knucklehead sons broke from time to time.
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 benefits of having that awkward feeling as a kid, though, have been profound 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 (at least trained as!) 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 substrates appear to me to be the web, mobile interfaces, and, happily, hardware itself.
But what I worry the most about is a cultural problem: the idea that there’s a split between the people who make the things in our world and the people who don’t — the ones who just consume/use/buy them. Go to any cafe in San Francisco or Palo Alto or New York, and it’s full of builders and makers. What an incredible development & evolution.
And I’m still worried that because of the ubiquity of the makers here (“here” meaning the broader technology community, not just SF & Palo Alto), we can’t see the split that’s growing between makers & non-makers, between the insiders & the outsiders.
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.
When people talk about coding literacy or technical literacy, what I hear & think is not necessarily that everyone will code in the future, but that we want more people exposed to understanding a bit about how things work, and see paths for themselves that are natural & inclusive, as opposed to alien and forbidding.
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.