Beyond Reading

By Devon Elliott

As a PhD student in history, most of my time is spent with text – either reading or writing. My job is to attempt to understand the past using what remains, and then to communicate what I have discovered. In my reading, I often encounter examples of humans interacting with physical objects in different ways, coming up with technologies that helped them accomplish what they wanted to do.

There’s an inherent physicality to those things that engages humans in ways that can potentially be lost in translation to a purely textual form. Hacking as a Way of Knowing showed two things: experimentation with technology is accessible and that experimentation can shed light on interactions between people and technology from the past.

Immersed in a studio space housed with collected e-waste, the tools to dismantle and reassemble components and a few people more experienced in hacking, it was apparent that this sort of approach was accessible. You don’t need to be an expert in electronics to use e-waste parts in different and interesting ways. Easy-to-use technology like microcontrollers can act as mediators for the experimenter to get certain components working in the ways you want them to. Constructing by hacking allows you to create customized equipment that operates according to your own interests and concerns. It could display information related to a particular topic in a unique way, or a user’s interaction could intellectually engage the participant in some manner.

We’re not just stuck with what we’re given, but can re-shape it and re-purpose things for our own goals, perhaps with unexpected results. These types of encounters are not far removed from everyday experience. We live in a world of things, where those interactions shape the events in our lives and with which we are regularly engaged. Hacking is one way of interacting with those things in a thoughtful and conscious manner – accepting that those things are around us, but this represents attempts to get those things to do what we want them to do, rather than remain passive users of their dictated purpose.

These experiences are not unique to the present. What would a workshop on hacking have to do with my work as a historian? Experimenting directly with the physical world offers opportunities for the humanities scholar to explore the encounters people of the past had with technology and find knowledge that they might otherwise have missed.

As an example from my research, reading the method for a stage illusion does not communicate the same things as actually experiencing a performance. Creating something can play a communicative role, as users can then interact with that object in ways beyond solely reading about it. We learn from experience; we often study the experiences of others; why not try to communicate via experience?

Ephemera and Baby Turtles

By Adam Crymble

Learning tools are ephemeral. The purpose of the learning tool is to consume it. For example, a textbook. When someone picks up a textbook their goal is to reach the end so that at the next cocktail party, he or she can say “I read that.” Or, perhaps more pragmatically, the reader wants to be able to answer question three on the midterm exam. I invite anyone skeptical of this claim to walk around a university campus just after finals. Chances are you’ll witness long line-ups of students at the bookstore. These students are hoping to cut their losses and get anything at all in return for learning tools that cease to hold value for their owner.

At least with text books, the students are lucky. The bookstore will give them a fraction of the book’s original value, which can then go towards next year’s books. Not so with old electronics. That clunky printer or broken bread machine simply ends up at the side of the road for the garbage man. That’s because in our society, electronics are ephemeral. Students know it’s not worth it to repair a printer – if replacement parts are even available – when instead, they can get a much better model for a few extra dollars.

This willingness to treat electronics as ephemera is bigger than an economic issue for underfunded students. Almost all e-waste ends up sitting in a landfill, undoubtedly doing no good for baby turtles. That’s where workshops like this come in. As Bill Turkel says in his introductory video, there’s all sorts of great parts in that old printer. Parts you might spend tens or hundreds of dollars buying to start doing some rudimentary electronics work. Because we collected most of the e-waste from the side of the road, our learning tools were free and we didn’t create new waste.

I’ll leave it up to Bill to convince you why humanists and social scientists should be dabbling in electronics and fabrication. I’ll only suggest that he’s right: there are tons of parts that can get you started learning how to make things. Motors, transistors, displays, sensors and gears. With these building blocks freed from their former housings, all it took was a little ingenuity and patience before I was inspecting the mechanical flower that only bloomed under artificial light, or the machine that could read and interpret a fax machine’s heat-transfer paper (ok, ok, that one didn’t actually work, but it was a great idea).

Is this a solution for keeping e-waste out of the landfill? Not yet. Does it remove all of the cost of buying learning materials? Definitely not. But it’s a start. If we accept that learning tools are ephemeral, we might be more inclined to think outside the box – or inside the bread maker – when it comes to looking for a learning tool. Not all learning occurs between the covers of a book.

What about the baby turtles you ask? If in three afternoons someone had figured out how to make a flower ignore the sun and yearn for fluorescence, I think it’s safe to say a few more days and we’ll have the turtle problem under control.

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