Makers and tinkerers

Tuesday 6th Apr 2010

There’s a thing you can buy. It’s a popular thing (as far as we can tell) and it’s made by people who make other popular, shiny things. It seems everyone is talking about it and everyone is saying the same set of things about it. Either they like it and it’s the best thing evah, or they don’t like the company that made it so therefore the thing is a heap of crap and will destroy humanity and turn us into mindless consumerist drones. There’s also been a lot of heat over how open it is to people tinkering with it. (You know what it is. I’m not going to type that keyword).

You know the kind of thing, the web is full of these little homilies about how little Johnny played with the family computer and learned to program on it and wow look at him now, he’s a big strong programmer! The assumption seems to be that unless you’ve got a computer to fiddle about with as a child you’ll never grow up to be creative with computers, or be creative at all.

Well, you know, I call bullshit on this. I didn’t have a computer until I was 17, and I still consider myself pretty damn privileged to have got that. There were computers at school that I played around with, but when something belongs to someone else (and has to be used by classes) you tend to be limited in your tinkering — i.e. you don’t want to break it. So we didn’t have a computer. We didn’t have much that would class as ‘consumer electronics’ anyway — my Dad is an engineer and I now wonder whether he didn’t want any of this stuff in the house because it would (inevitably) go wrong and he’d have to fix it.

Still, it all seemed perfectly normal. I had lots of paper — Dad brought home these stacks of z-fold computer paper covered in numbers, leftovers from some monthly reports they had to run at work — and I’d spend hours drawing on the blank reverse side. I had Lego, boy did I have Lego. Most of my childhood and a big chunk of my teens was dominated by the stuff — I had whole systems devoted to building things just right. Then the rest of the time was spent outside, building things with mud and sticks, splashing around in streams or running around in the woods looking for caves. I found a good one once, and then could never find it again. I still wonder where it was.

I grew up in a world where there were plenty of ‘open systems’ and I made lots of things and imagined lots of things. There were plenty of closed systems too, like the class computer, but they didn’t get in the way, instead they offered an insight into what could be possible, given access to the right things. Finding and securing that access in itself is a problem to be solved, and however much you insist it will, the Apple EULAs and the like making it illegal to ‘tinker’ won’t be much of a barrier to anyone determined enough. Phone phreaking was and is illegal, but I bet a load of people working in modern telecoms have done it and learned a lot from it.

My point is this. If your creativity, your ability to make something, to play and tinker, is dependent on a specific device or on having permission, then you’re not a maker or a tinkerer. You’re already a drone. None of these things held me back when I was a kid, and yes, I got into trouble for it from time to time (my Mom’s flowerbeds were never the same after I built that ace canal system through them) but they taught me a hell of a lot. To argue that one class of consumer devices will stifle creativity is nonsense. To argue that the costs of getting setup to build apps for the thing is too high is to ignore how expensive the equivalent gadgets were in the ’80s. You don’t need money to grow up creative, you need other, more valuable things, like free time, safe environments and supportive parents, and even those things only help. The key thing is to want to make things. Some people do, and others don’t.

And I am so buying one.