I spent a really stimulating day yesterday at the Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge conference, listening and talking to people like Dale Dougherty (founder of Make Magazine, the Maker Faire, etc.), Mitch Resnik (MIT Media Lab), Rick Prelinger (the Prelinger Library and online film collection), Anne Balsamo, and others. We're meeting for part of today, but I wanted to start reflecting on yesterday's discussion; and in particular, I want to get at the question of what tinkering is. Is it a unified body of practices? Is it a distinct set of skills? is it an historical moment? Is it just a trendy name? This is something we spent a fair amount of time discussing, either formally or informally, and the answer is: It's all of those. I also thinking there are a couple other important things that define tinkering.
What is Tinkering?
You can define tinkering in part in contrast to other activities. Mitch Resnick, for example, talks about how traditional technology-related planning is top-down, linear, structured, abstract, and rules-based, while tinkering is bottom-up, iterative, experimental, concrete, and object-oriented. (Resnick is very big on creating toys that invite tinkering.)
Anne Balsamo and Perry Hoberman have looked at a wide variety of tinkering activities, ranging from circuit bending to paper prototyping to open source to blogging. They argue that these varied activities are unified by a common set of principles or practices. (The following are just highlights.)
- Tinkerers improvise, iterate, and improve constantly.
- Tinkerers use materials at hand, combining heterogeneous parts and components (e.g., raw and finished materials, handmade and industrial objects, customized and personalized consumer products) in ways that push beyond the boundaries of their original contexts. As a result, tinkered objects tend to be collages, appropriations, and montages. Tinkering is bricolage.
- Tinkerers are also social animals. Their success depends in part on being able to tap into porous and ad-hoc communities. For most of what they do the manual is useless; other tinkerers are the only ones who are likely to have the information you need.
Tinkering isn't so much a specific set of technical skills: there tends to be a pretty instrumental view of knowledge. You pick up just enough knowledge about electronics, textiles, metals, programming, or paper-folding to figure out how to do what you want. It certainly respects skill, but skills are a means, not an end: mastery isn't the point, as it is for professionals. Competence and completion are.
Is Tinkering Shallow or Deep?
One of the things I talked with several people (Mike Kuniavsky in particular) about was how historically specific tinkering is. The deeper question is, is this just a flash in the pan, a trendy name without any substance underneath? The answer we came up with is that this is like a musical style, both the product of specific historical forces, and an expression of something deeper and more fundamental. (Think of jazz: you can talk about how it emerges in the early 20th century out of blues, ragtime, and other previous musical forms, reflects particular sociological and historical trends, and is guided by certain assumptions about beauty and what music is; but at the same time, it definitely expresses a deeper impulse to create music.)
Think of the historically contingent forces shaping tinkering first. I see several things influencing it:
- The counterculture. Around here, countercultural attitudes towards technology-- explored by John Markoff in What the Dormouse Said (here's my review of it), Theodore Roszak (his Satori to Silicon Valley is still one of the best essays on the historical relationship between the counterculture and personal computing) are still very strong, and the assumption that technologies should be used by people for personal empowerment. Tinkering bears a family resemblance to the activities embodied in the Whole Earth Catalog.
- Agile software. Mike sees some similarities between agile software development and tinkering; in particular, both are attempts to break out of traditional, hard-to-scale ways of creating things.
- The EULA rebellion. The fact that you're forbidden from opening a box, that some software companies insist that you're just renting their products, and that hardware makers intentionally cripple their devices, is a challenge to hackers and tinkerers. Tinkering is defined in part in terms of a resistance to consumer culture and the restrictive policies of corporations.
- Users as Innovators. The fundamental assumption that users can do cool, worthwhile, inspiring, innovative things is a huge driver. Tinkering is partly an answer to the traditional assumption that people who buy things are "consumers"-- passive, thoughtless, and reactive, people whose needs are not only served by companies, but are defined by them as well. When you tinker, you don't just take control of your stuff; you begin to take control of yourself. (John Thackara talks about user innovation wonderfully in his book In the Bubble. As C. K. Prahalad argues, this isn't a phenomenon restricted to users who are high-tech geeks: companies serving the base of the pyramid see the poor as innovators.)
- Open source. Pretty obvious. This is an ideological inspiration, and a social one: open source software development is a highly collective process that has created some interesting mechanisms for incorporating individual work into a larger system, while still providing credit and social capital for developers.
- The shift from means to meaning. This is a term that my Innovation Lab friends came up with a few years ago. Tinkering is a way of investing new meanings in things, or creating objects that mean something: by putting yourself into a device, or customizing it to better suit your needs, you're making that thing more meaningful. (Daniel Pink also talks about it in his book A Whole New Mind, on the shift from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. The geodesic dome is a great example of a technology whose meaning was defined-- and redefined-- by users.)
- From manual labor to manual leisure. Finally, I wouldn't discount the fact that you can see breaking open devices as a leisure activity, rather than something you do out of economic necessity, as influencing the movement. Two hundred years ago, tinkering as a social activity-- as something that you did as an act of resistance, curiosity, participation in a social movement, expression of a desire to invest things with meaning-- just didn't exist: it's what you did with stuff in order to survive the winter. Even fifty years ago, there was an assumption that "working with your hands" defined you as lower class: "My son won't work with his hands" was an aspiration declaration. Today, though, when many of us work in offices or stores, and lift things or run for leisure, manual labor can become a form of entertainment.
No doubt there are other sources you could point to-- microentrepreneurship or the growth of "jobbies," the presence of an infrastructure that supports the sharing and tracking of unique handmade things (from eBay to ThingLink).
Does Tinkering Matter?
That's a pretty varied list. And it suggests that tinkering is more than a local, Valley, geek leisure thing.
First, tinkering is a powerful form of learning. Even if it doesn't stress mastery of skills, tinkering does emphasize learning how to use your hands, learning how to use materials, and to engage with the physical world rather than the world of software or Second Life-- though tinkering does share a sensibility toward the world that lots of kids demonstrate to programs and virtual worlds: you just get in there, hit buttons, and see what happens.
This really matters because you can be creative with stuff in ways you can't with bits, and that the more you understand the possibilities and limitations or materials-- or more abstractly, if you learn how to develop that knowledge-- the smarter you become. In this respect, it dovetails with "a little-noticed movement in the world of professional design and engineering" that Gregg Zachary wrote about a few weeks ago: "a renewed appreciation for manual labor, or innovating with the aid of human hands." (I write about this at greater length on End of Cyberspace.)
Second, tinkering is forward-looking. It's partly about how we'll use and interact with technologies in the future. As much as any loose movement can be described this way, tinkering is a set of anticipatory practices, aimed at developing a sensibility about the future. It's a way to develop skills that are going to matter in the Conceptual Age, in the ubiquitous computing world. As we move into a world in which we can manufacture things as cheaply as we print them, the skills that tinkerers develop-- not just their ability to play with stuff, or to use particular tools, but to share their ideas and improve on the ideas of others-- will be huge. (I talk about this some in an article in Samsung's DigitAll Magazine.)
Finally, tinkering is an expression of the nature of our engagement with technology. If you buy the argument of Andy Clark that we are natural-born cyborgs, you can see tinkering as a form of co-evolution with technology, or a kind of symbiotic activity.