things to make and do

When I was seven, my dad built me a bed, taking inspiration from a drawing in an old woodworking magazine, scavenging the wood, cutting it to fit the lean in the room. It had three drawers and cupboard space beneath for the games and toys and books I steadily acquired, as well as the growing pile of tapes for my ZX Spectrum.

Around the same time, he carved me a miniature cricket bat the length of my middle finger, notching a V, varnishing it, winding cotton for the handle grip. It’s a precious thing to me.

He has built sheds, paved patios, dug out ponds, knocked out walls, fit gas fires, tied flies — and that’s just in his spare time.

My dad is a maker.

In his twenties, my dad bought a tenor banjo. It’s a beautiful thing: ivory buttons, inlaid mother-of-pearl on the head and fretboard, vellum skin, a duster stuffed behind to keep down the volume. Looking online some years ago, I found a site devoted to vintage banjos, which told me a little about its age and history and the journey it had taken over nearly a century of existence. I told this to my dad, and he was thrilled; I printed out the pages and posted them, because computers remain a mystery to him.

Last year he told me that the screws from a couple of the tuners had broken; finding replacements was difficult, because that gauge wasn’t made any more in Britain. I registered at a banjo forum, asked for help, and within days a kind person from New York not only told me the gauge I needed, but sent a bag of screws that I posted on to my dad. They were a perfect fit. When I described how I got them, I might as well have been telling him that aliens landed in the garden and left them behind.

A couple of Christmases back, I called my parents, who were staying with my sister and her family. Could I speak to my dad, I asked? I’ll give him a shout, said my mother, but he’s been playing on the Wii with the kids from the moment they switched it on.

I finally spoke to him, surprised by what I’d heard. “Bloody marvellous, son.”

When I look at the iPad, I see something my dad could use without hand-holding to find the history of that banjo, to seek out those screws, to look at old video of Sonny Terry, to feed his glorious practical creativity, unencumbered by the need to learn the habits and quirks of computing, and not relying upon a transatlantic support department.

There’s a liberation in open things (and opening things) but there’s a far greater one in how things can open up people.

20 thoughts on “things to make and do

  1. Not really.

    Apple could have achieved the same thing without owning the root.

    What Apple have done is lock a computer (and their phone) down in a way that caused a serious scare when Microsoft were talking about it a couple of years back http://www.genomicon.com/2010/01/against-the-white-cliffs-of-neopalladium/ – Apple have done it, and for one reason or another, people absolve them of it.

    A friendly interface does not warrant root-level DRM. Sorry. It’s evil.

  2. Very touching.. Now, get him an iPhone or an iPod instead.
    Or any of those Nokia web devices.

  3. I don’t really have an opinion on this one way or the other, but yours is another in a long line of speculative iPad articles about the utility of the thing to other people. I’ll believe that the device is a success when I start seeing actual owners of the device talk about how great the device is for them.

    Take your banjo example – how does the iPad help him find banjohangout.org to begin with? Once he’s there, how is interacting with the forum web page via the iPad easier than the same actions on a different computer? When he wants to watch that Sonny Terry video, how will he know to switch from the Flashless iPad browser to the purpose-built Youtube-only video application? Why was your story of getting those screws so weird to your dad? Seems like what you really did was find the right place and the right people to ask, not solve some crazy-intractible technological problem that Apple is poised to fix for the unlettered masses.

    In summary, what Nick and Munim said. The characteristics of the device that make it interesting for people’s parents do not require the characteristics that make it offensive to programmers. To think so is a weird sort of paternalism.

  4. If Apple owned 90% of the market and were going to switch all their devices to the iPad model, I’d be pretty upset. Instead they are offering a product aimed at one segment of the market that historically has been brutally underserved. I’m keeping my laptop, but I might get my parents an iPad.

  5. Most people don’t even know what root-level drm is or care about it. Evil – nuts to that.

  6. Munim: sixtysomething fingers and eyesight aren’t a great match for that size screen.

    Nick T: ‘evil’ gets thrown around a bit too freely for my liking. As Gruber noted, it’s not as if people haven’t tolerated the much tighter restrictions on consoles for decades.

    Another family anecdote that I initially wasn’t going to share: my sister called up just last night to say that her eldest’s laptop was virus-ridden. I suggested downloading AVG on the desktop PC, but that’s apparently infected too. Now, I could tell them to wipe Windows and stick Ubuntu on both, but if I do that, I’m signing myself for even more technical support while explaining why they can’t run the same stuff as their friends. How many creative hours have been lost to that kind of tedious maintenance duty?

    I am so over the idealistic belief that every computer user is a latent hacker-maker-coder who just lacks the right tools. I am so over the idea that access to the cornucopia of creative and insightful and useful stuff that’s available online requires either a boatload of foundational computing skills or extensive hand-holding. While I have no objections to those battles being fought out in the computing space I inhabit, I am personally done with this guild-mentality shit.

  7. Michal – yeah, I’m waiting for the reports to come in. But it’s no less speculative than Cory’s; what particularly annoyed me was his image of a purported user as a passive, bloated ‘consumer’, as if the only makers that matter are the ones assembling crochet-covered Arduino-powered companion cubes to sell on Etsy. Well, bollocks to that.

    how is interacting with the forum web page via the iPad easier than the same actions on a different computer

    Another true story: I once spent two hours on the phone with my parents explaining how to plug in the TV, VCR, digital box and DVD player so that they’d all work together. Schematics were involved. My parents are not stupid people; technology makes them feel stupid, and I hate that.

    So: UI concepts, general maintenance duties, basic fear or distrust of technology, all of which becomes self-perpetuating, as users hold themselves responsible for not having grown up accustomed to increasingly hoary UI metaphors, or for failing to patch the security holes of a crappy underlying OS. (If I lived close to my parents, I’d take on that task, but I’m a continent away.)

    If the iPad truly abstracts away the whole ‘using a computer’ bit of using a computer, it will make me very happy. If another device comes along that does the same thing without DRM or developer lock-in, then like Andre I’ll embrace it. (Before anyone chips in: no, the Archos is not that device.) If that kind of lock-in comes to OS X proper, I’ll resent it, resist it and reject it. But it’s been nearly 30 years since I received my first home computer, and it’s about time everyone else got to play without it requiring informal training, monthly VNC sessions, and every family gathering turning into onsite tech support.

  8. Nick Taylor: “A friendly interface does not warrant root-level DRM. Sorry. It’s evil.”

    Sorry, Nick, you insta-lose this argument on two counts: You clearly don’t know what DRM is if you think the iPad has “root-level DRM”; and secondly by talking about “evil”, except in relation to real evil – you know, killing innocent civilians with machetes, that kind of thing.

  9. One final point, Michal: the iPad’s desktop sync means my ideal of ‘computing’-free computing is at least one or two iterations away; backing up to the cloud creates its own issues of control and ownership. But that’s a tradeoff that I’ll judge when it comes.

  10. Nick,

    I agree that Cory is a bit over the top, but the points he makes aren’t completely off the mark. The Marvel Comics thing, for example, is a pretty good deconstruction of the importance of sharing and trading for comics fans. Overall I think the saddest aspect of the App Store is that it’s a suboptimal political arrangement for developers and coders. It routes most potential creative flows for the device through Apple, and we’ve all read the accounts of overworked app reviewers misunderstanding what they’re seeing and denying releases for specious reasons after weeks or months of silent limbo.

    I don’t agree that this is a “guild” concern, by the way. One of my coworkers recently got an Android phone. We were working on a project that required 24 hour monitoring of a system, and so he wrote up a tiny Python script to alert him up with a spoken message if something in the system went awry. Python is a simple scripting language, worlds away from the caricature of the disassembling “maker” with a soldering iron, even recommended as a learning environment for children. This is entry-level stuff that’s never been possible on any of the “i-” devices, more akin to the way that people excitedly write spreadsheet macros for themselves than to real programming. This is the kind of consumer/producer that the iPad shuts out: casually curious, motivated by specific, small-scale needs, and nowhere close to the Make Magazine douchebag you parody above.

    A few folks brought new iPads to an event I attended yesterday, so I’ve had a chance to play with it. It’s a completely gorgeous device (if you can ignore all the finger-grease smudges), with some responsiveness problems but overall it delivers on the promise of a functionally awesome tablet computer. Still, I don’t see where it will fit in my life. It’s not going to slip in my pocket like my phone, and I can’t do work on it like my laptop. I suppose it could replace my Kindle, but I consider the non-backlit display and heroic battery life of that device to be features. I suppose it remains to be seen whether the iPad truly abstracts away all the computery bits of using a computer; I know a thing or two about leaky abstractions so I’m not particularly optimistic on this point. This doesn’t mean that it won’t be a sales success of course, just that I don’t think we’re quite at the point of replacing all our parents’ desktop machines.

  11. Michal — I’m going to start at the end, by saying that ‘our parents’ desktop machines’ already assumes too much for my liking in terms of familiarity, access and market penetration. There may be a transatlantic divide here, because desktop machines became affordable and desirable in the US before lots of other places, but ‘digital inclusion’ is still an issue in the UK, and I’d say that reports suggesting a tenth of the British population lack online access actually hides those who might technically be online but have ongoing struggles with technology.

    What I meant by ‘guild mentality’ is something much broader than your example: it’s the underlying principle that productive or creative interactions with computing devices have to be tied to programmatic acts. (Ian expands upon this over at his place.) Your ‘entry-level’ examples of scripts and macros still count as ‘computing’ — and I’d consider them much more advanced than posting to a forum, setting up a Facebook page, starting a blog, tracing your family tree, arranging a delivery from Tesco. (And the Marvel app doesn’t actually stop people from trading comics.)

    We’ve reached the era of second-order curiosity and engagement, and about time too. Now the technology has to adapt to it.

    That kind of device doesn’t fit into your life? Fine. Pretty sure that nobody’s taking away your preferred development machine. It probably doesn’t fit into mine either, and neither does a Kindle or iPhone. But it has the potential to fit into the lives of people who are currently locked out from the online world, and I now consider that more important than developer lock-in. (Perhaps such devices serve a diminishing demographic. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t exist.)

  12. Nick,

    Thanks for all your responses, I appreciate that you pay attention to comments on your site. Not everyone does!

    Anyway, a reaction to this: “What I meant by ‘guild mentality’ is something much broader than your example: it’s the underlying principle that productive or creative interactions with computing devices have to be tied to programmatic acts.” I understand that creativity etc. is broader than programmatic acts, but the fact is that the entire context for this discussion is the release of an electronic gizmo. You may be able to write on it, paint on it, communicate with it, play with pictures on it, or learn with it (paraphrasing Ian), but you can do that stuff with any number of other tools, while coding is the *specific type of creative act* that lets you change the terms of this particular device itself. Or would, if it was allowed.

    This is why I’m unsatisfied with your “open up people” phrase that’s gotten so much attention for this post. It’s so broadly scoped as to be irrelevant to the thing being discussed. The iPad is not an inflection point, it lives on a long bendy line that stretches from Marconi to Engelbart to Bricklin to Atkinson to moot, a long hard slog towards making more things possible for more people. The thing *I’m* frustrated with is the recent willingness of talented, creative thinkers to throw up their hands and give up on the idea that programmatic thinking is a relatively easy skill to acquire – Ian’s got this in spades on his post, and it’s completely shitty and self-defeating. “Wah, not everyone knows how to manage memory in Obj-C so here’s a great new device that only lets you buy movies and play farmville.”

    What will it take to help people understand that open platforms don’t require every user to also be a rockstar developer, but do allow for the possibility that people might help one another? There could be so many more interesting relationships here than consumer-to-app-store.

  13. Michal, I’m glad to be back-and-forthing with someone of your talent and engagement.

    That’s why it’s unsatisfying to see you reduce and implicitly deride the massive amounts of creative, productive and worthwhile online activity that lead to equally productive, creative and worthwhile offline activity, all without being primarily programmatic in nature. It’s a cheap bait-and-switch to talk about movies and Farmville instead of sites like Ravelry for knitters or the collective wisdom seen every day at Ask MetaFilter. (Yes, coders built and maintain those sites, and long may that continue; I don’t fear for their future.)

    The context for this discussion is twofold: the release of a particular electronic gizmo that combines research-lab ideas about UI and filesystems with mass-market heft and appeal, together with the assertion that the underlying controls on developer access render anyone who might use that electronic gizmo not a ‘maker’. I think that’s far more elitist and cramped and meaner-spirited than my belief that it’s time to get the superannuated crap of ‘computing’ out of the way of people for whom it is demonstrably more a hindrance than a help. It perpetuates a theology, intentional or not, in which the only way to technological salvation comes through code. (The snarky answer to your point about programmatic thinking is ‘easy for you to say’; the less snarky answer is that even granting its ease, I’ve come to question its necessity as a gatekeeper. Particularly when the real gatekeepers are much more mundane and insidious.)

    When I was 16, I wanted the latest and greatest shiniest tech, and its flakiness was part of the deal. (Young car enthusiasts lust after Alfa Romeos for the same reason.) When I was 26, I wanted to refine the tools at my disposal to do the jobs I wanted of them the best way possible, even if that meant wasting time on those refinements when I should have been doing the jobs. Now I mainly want technology to just work, for the greatest good, for the greatest number.

    I noticed this comment from Martha Lane Fox on her digital inclusion work for the British government: “I say, don’t talk about the technology first. The internet can be scary for people. That’s why I’ve tried to say to people,’let’s flip this idea around’. If people see for themselves what the internet can do, then they will take it on from there themselves.”

    No single device or manufacturer or website or coder is going to achieve this, nor will it replace community support (for all values of ‘support’) but those which muffle the insistant self-proclaiming voice of Technology are pointing the way ahead. Let’s see that done with open standards on open platforms.

    [added Apr 6: closing the thread now, so I can move on to other stuff, but I'm grateful for the responses, particularly Michal's. You do fine work, sir: more power to your elbow.]

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