Hands on!

By William J. Turkel

In the spring of 2009, Edward Jones-Imhotep and I invited a few dozen people to a three-day, hands-on hacking workshop to explore the problem of environmental waste. Some of the participants were academics: environmental historians, digital humanists and scholars in the field of science and technology studies. Some were members of local art, design and hacking communities. They were asked to work together in small groups to create reflective technological assemblages that incorporated ‘nature’ in some form, while calling one or more of our basic assumptions into question. The materials that they had at their disposal included electronic and mechanical components, some open source hardware, and a large pile of discarded consumer electronic devices.

For participants who were accustomed to more traditional academic activities like writing and reading papers, the experience was novel, and in some cases unsettling. Humanists have been thinking with the idea of bricolage since the 1960s, thanks to the influence of Lévi-Strauss’s La pensée sauvage. But it is one thing to celebrate the bricoleur, and quite another to be faced with the task of making-do with a pile of junk. Different groups responded to the challenge in very different ways.

One team, largely comprised of digital humanists with a background in textual work, wanted to create a literary technology of some sort. The fortuitous discovery of a roll of thermal paper inside an old fax machine led to the creation of a cobbled-together, computer-controlled projector, the ReReader for the Writing on the Wall. Another team seemed to divide labour between practitioners and theorists. Half of them worked on a plotter built from an old record player and two printer mechanisms, while the others developed a critical analysis of the news, and a newsfeed aggregator and filter to drive the plotter. A third team started with an electronic circuit that can distinguish different kinds of visible light, and repurposed that to create a mechanical flower that ‘blooms’ only under artificial light.

Individual styles of engagement also played a significant role. Some people slowly and thoughtfully disassembled devices, studying their construction and attempting to conserve as many of the components as possible. Others worked more quickly, ripping out a mechanism of interest and throwing the remains back on the heap. Some worked best by themselves, staking out a corner or a bench at the side of the room. Others seemed happier to be chatting and working together. Everyone was willing to offer information when they had it, and to ask for help when they needed it.

I think that most of the participants had a lot of fun, and a number of them asked why humanists and social scientists don’t do this kind of thing more often. It’s a really good question. As a society we understand that children need to play to learn, and we create spaces like preschool or kindergarten where they can negotiate group interactions, work with their hands, be artistically creative, make a mess and learn by doing. Somehow that lesson gets lost along the way. We endorse the concept of lifelong learning, while making the spaces for learning more uniform, more drab, more constrained. Practically every kindergarten in the country is better equipped for hands-on exploration than the kinds of spaces that we teach our graduate students in. And that’s a shame, because physical objects and artifacts constitute a vast part of our knowledge of the world. Manipulating is a way of knowing, making is a way of knowing, hacking is a way of knowing. Without access to these modes of engagement, humanists and social scientists run the risk of missing or misunderstanding the stuff that makes up our world.

This workshop was held at InterAccess in Toronto from 1-3 May 2009. Funding was provided by a SSHRC Image, Text, Sounds and Technology grant to Turkel and by NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & environment.

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If you would like to do something like this yourself, or if you’d like to arrange a similar workshop with your friends, here are the steps to take…

  1. Collect some e-waste. Discarded consumer electronic devices are all too common. Printers and disk drives are full of particularly useful components. Microwave ovens and CRTs can be dangerous for beginners, and should be avoided. Better safe than sorry.
  2. Find a venue. A media arts centre or hacker space makes a good venue for a workshop like this one. You want a place where it is OK to make a mess and do some soldering and light construction. You will also want WiFi.
  3. Gather equipment and supplies. At the very least, you will need safety glasses, nitrile gloves, Arduinos, some basic electronic components, breadboards, soldering irons, Dremels, hand tools, and laptops. We also encouraged people to use the Processing programming language, and supplied a number of reference books (see the Further Reading page).
  4. Invite some hackers. We found that it was nice to have a mix of academics, hardware people, software people, designers, artists and students. Tell everyone that they are going to be teaching and learning from one another.
  5. Give them an unrealistic task. We knew that it was unlikely that any of the teams would complete the task that we set for them, and that was fine with us. It gave the workshop a very intense mood.
  6. Have workshop facilitators. We had a number of people floating around to lend a hand whenever necessary.
  7. Provide stimulating distractions. Wade Bortz brought his RepRap and used it to print some parts during the workshop. When people needed a break, they could wander over and talk to him about fabricators. It was inspiring to see a complicated hack working successfully.
  8. Have fun hacking!
  9. Document everything… then give it away. Open source, open access, open content. We encouraged participants to blog, send tweets, upload photos, and share code.
  10. Clean up. Make sure to leave time at the end of the workshop to clean up and recycle as much as possible. This always takes longer than you think it will.