In defense of open source innovation and polite disagreement

First off: congratulations to the MakerBot team on Replicator 2, and on the store. It looks like a good product, from first impressions. It’s a lot of hard work getting a product out, and more opening a store. The team who did this deserve praise.

I’ve been seeing a lot of inflammatory language in my news feeds the past couple days about the Replicator 2, specifically whether or not it’s open source. I haven’t got enough information to say, but I think well of Bre and Adam and the MakerBot team. I believe their ideals regarding open source software and hardware are more or less in line with my own, and I trust that they’ll do their best to meet those ideals.

What concerns me is the inflammatory language many have used to criticize MakerBot.  A lot of fundamentalist, angry language is being thrown around; language similar to that we usually hear from people who blow things up, or who buy elections. I don’t think this kind of language is necessary. I have an aversion to fundamentalism of any sort, even when it’s in support of my own ideals.  It leads to bad things.

MakerBot is one of many companies working to establish source principles in mainstream corporate culture. Doing that means a lot of compromise. There will be steps forward in the direction of openness, and there will be steps back.  There are a lot of people in the corporate world who need to be convinced that open source is a good thing. We won’t change their minds with overthrow. We will change their minds by competing fairly on their playing field, sometimes by their rules, and offering better products and services. We won’t always meet our ideals with every product or service.

Chris Anderson’s new book refers to what’s happening as “The New Industrial Revolution”. I hope he’s wrong. Revolutions tend to be bloody, vicious things, leaving many scars. I hope it’s the new industrial evolution. That means slower change, but it’s change that benefits everyone and hurts as few as possible.

We are all compromisers. Did you tweet vicious language about MakerBot from your iPhone or iPad? Are you reading this on a Dell, a Sony, an HP laptop, a Blackberry phone?  Then you bought a closed source product.  What kind of a fundamentalist are you?  I know I’m a terrible one, because, as much as I disagree with Apple’s corporate strategy, you can have my MacBook Air when you pry it from — strike that. You can have it when the newer, shinier one comes out. When that happens, I’ll be even happier if Apple takes a step in the direction of openness.  Probably won’t happen, but, like the dog that goes happily to the front door when the doorbell rings even though it’s never for him, I am an idealist.

One dynamic that happens in a lot of idealist communities: we praise our opponents who make even a small step in our direction, but we attack our own mercilessly when they make even a small step away from us.  It’s counter-productive.

I don’t know what MakerBot will do regarding the Replicator 2’s licenses and source material, but if they do something I disagree with, I will talk to them in the same tone that I’d expect them to address me in if I did something they disagreed with. I won’t call them names.

So: if you’ve got an objection to what MakerBot or anyone in your own community does, speak up. But do it politely. Before you say anything, phrase it as if you had the person you’re addressing in front of you. Check the language with your grandmother, if you need to.  If she tells you you’re being impolite, listen to her. She’s probably right.  She changed your diaper once, you know. She knows when your poo stinks.


This post is dedicated to Grandma Farley, who probably would have told me that I “don’t have enough sense to pound sand into a rathole.” I still don’t know what that means.

Posted in open innovation | 5 Comments

Making Interactive Art: Set the Stage, Then Shut Up and Listen

 Don’t interpret your own work. 

Quite often I see artists who venture into interactive art start by making interactive artworks and offering interpretation in the notes beside them.  They’ll describe the work, then tell you what each element means,and what the participant will do with those elements.  They pre-script what will happen. When you do that, you’re telling the participant what to think, and by extension, how to act. Is that what you wanted?

It’s a hard shift for some artists to think about making interactive work because we’re taught that a work of art is a work of expression. It’s a statement.  Interactive work is different. The thing you build, whether it’s a device or a whole environment, is just the beginning of a conversation with the people who experience your work. What you’re making is an instrument or an environment (or both) in which or with which you want your audience to take action. Ideally they will understand what you’re expressing through that experience.

Your task in designing an interactive artwork is to give your audience the basic context, then get out of their way. Arrange the space, put in the items through they can take action, suggest a sequence of events through juxtaposition. If you want them to handle something, give it a handle. If they’re not supposed to touch something, don;t make it approachable. If they’re supposed to discover something hidden, give hints. Remove anything extraneous.

Once you’ve made your initial statement by building the thing or the environment and designing its behaviors, shut up. Let the audience listen to your work by taking it in through their senses.  Let them think about what each part means, which parts afford contact or control, and which parts don’t.  Let them decide how they will interpret the parts, and how they will respond.  Let them speak through their actions.

The next part of the conversation is to listen. Listen to what they say through their actions, through how they understand, or misunderstand, how to manipulate the parts that you designed to respond to them. Pay attention to their reactions. Some will be emotionally moved, some will not get it, others won’t care. Some will get excited and show others what they learned.  How people interact with your work will change over the course of its presentation. If you’re making interactive artwork, that is the conversation you’re having with the people for whom you make your work.

For me, planning interactive artwork is similar to a director working with actors.  (caveat: I haven’t directed anyone since class in undergrad.  I have worked on several stage productions, but this is years of observation speaking, not firsthand experience) If you want an actor to offer an authentic emotional performance, you can’t tell him what to think or what to do. You can suggest intentions, but you can’t give him interpretations. You can give him props to work with, or place them in the way so he’ll discover them. You can suggest actions, but you can’t tell him how to feel about those actions; he will have to find it for himself. He’ll discover the statement you’re looking to make through that conversation you have in rehearsal, and the resulting expression will be your collaborative effort.

So if you’re thinking of an interactive artwork, don’t think of it like a finished painting or sculpture.  Think of it more as a performance. Your audience completes the work through what they do when they see what you’ve made.  Figure out how to suggest to them what their course of action could be, and how they might uncover their story, and their own emotional interpretation of the work.


Posted in art & performance, interaction design, physical computing | 20 Comments

Toronto DigiFest and more

Just got back from Toronto, where I attended events at Toronto Digifest and TIFF Nexus.  I was very impressed with all the interesting work happening there. I gave a presentation at DigiFest on Arduino, Physical Computing and Mass Participation (PDF, 25.9MB). At TIFF Nexus I was a commentator on the Peripherals Initiative along with Steve Daniels, John Bouchard, and Emilie McGinley. More details on the Arduino blog. Thanks to all who made the trip so great, including Steve Daniels, John Bouchard, Emilie McGinley, Kate Hartman, Lawrence at Creatron, Luigi Ferrara, Nick Crampton, Samantha Fraser and the rest of the Digifest TO team, Maria Grazia Mattei and Giulia Capodieci of Meet the Media Guru, Ramona Pringle, Jason Nolan, and everyone else who made me feel very welcome. Gotta go back to Toronto soon.
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The thing that made me cry today

This morning, Massimo sent me a link that popped up as part of a Google alert for the keyword “Arduino”. It was the story of Ahmed Bassiouny, beautifully eulogized by Kent Mensah of Bassiouny was one of the activists killed during the Egyptian protests that led to Mubarak’s resignation.  He was also an sound and video artist and a teaching assistant at  at the Faculty of Art Education, Painting and Drawing Department, Helwan University. He was married and had two children.

I wouldn’t have run across this particular story if it weren’t for Massimo’s news alert, and the story doesn’t have anything to do with Arduino or digital art, except for the fact that it was one of this guy’s passions.  Knowing that made the events of the past few weeks feel much more personal, to me. The photo below, of Ahmed and a colleague displaying one of his works, is a scene I’ve witnessed a thousand times before, of an excited artist trying out a new palette.  It’s the kind of moment that makes me excited about coming to work each day. Today, it’s a scene that made me cry.

It’s easy to forget in the course of daily life that the people we work with have lives and experiences much richer than we discuss on an everyday basis.  Often their experiences are far more profound than anything I’ve experienced ourselves.  I’m thinking of several past and present students and colleagues who’ve lived through events like those of the past few weeks. For them, it’s a part of who they are now. For me, I am in awe of their courage and passion. It’s both humbling and comforting to be reminded that the people who change the world aren’t carved out of granite or descended from the heavens.  They’re the ones you’re sitting next to.

Condolences to Ahmed Bassiouny’s family and friends. He seems like someone I’d have liked to meet.

Thanks to Massimo Banzi for the link and to Kent Mensah for writing the story.

Posted in art & performance, equity | 1 Comment

Open Source Hardware Definition v.1.0 released

Last year, along with other members of the Arduino team and colleagues from several other open source hardware makers, I attended the Open Hardware Summit in New York. We began working on a definition and statement of principles for producing open hardware.  The discussion was grounded in our experience running our businesses, and we aimed to capture both the pragmatic realities of open hardware and the best practices in a definition that could help guide companies and individuals trying to work this way.

We’re happy to announce that after several months of discussion, writing, and debate, version 1.0 of the open source hardware definition and statement of principles has been released. Though many people were involved, praise and credit has to go to Ayah Bdeir, who, along with Alicia Gibb, got the ball rolling, and wrangled a sometimes difficult and opinionated group into consensus. I admire Ayah’s spirit, and her ability to combine diplomacy and brute emotional force to get things done.

The definition is a good starting point to talk about what open source hardware is, what best practices are, and how the businesses making it work.  My hope is that it will lead to more mainstream adoption of open source hardware practices. Hopefully someday soon we’ll see a major consumer device that’s manufactured using these principles.

Ayah writes:

Now, to move forward, please HELP:

1. Endorse the definition, post your feedback on version 1.0 on the forum and the mailing list as we work towards a 1.1 update in the next few weeks / months.

2. Take a look at the logos we are considering for “open source hardware”, give feedback or submit your own logo on the forum, in the thread LOGO.

3. Show your support of the OSHW Definition by applying the definition to your work/project/website

This is a very important step in propelling our movement forward. PLEASE FORWARD FAR AND WIDE.

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Open Hardware Summit, Sept 23, 2010

So what exactly is open source hardware?  We’re getting closer to a consensus definition, thanks to Ayah Bdeir and Eyebeam.  A few months ago, she put together a workshop on open source hardware, and invited a group of people who are making businesses of it, along with some great legal practitioners working on open source issues. It wasn’t a comprehensive group, but there were a lot of smart and practical people there to get some good work done. We talked about our work and the practicalities of running open source businesses, we argued about what the limits of openness are, and we started working on a draft of a working definition. The discussion continued online, as did the writing and the arguing.

The result is this Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Draft Definition version 0.3. I think it’s a pretty realistic definition, and I’m proud to be counted among the folks who drafted it.  There are many whose thinking (and doing) I admire in the discussion.

But wait!  That’s not the best part!  Ayah’s not done!  She and Alicia Gibb have organized an Open Hardware Summit this fall to present these ideas, and continue the discussion. Here are the details, in Ayah’s words:

I started getting interested in Open Hardware as a vehicle for innovation and social change while a student at the CCG group at the MIT Media Lab, and got fully immersed in it while a senior fellow at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York. Now, I am a (crazy!) strong believer in the power of Open Hardware. When I started littleBits, I jumped into the many challenges of porting the Open Source Software movement to tangible objects.

As I worked closely on legal strategy with incredible advisor, John Wilbanks, VP of Science at Creative Commons (CC), we decided to create a venue for the community to interface with CC, and embark on a mission to help catalyze an Open Hardware license. The workshop, entitled “Opening Hardware: A workshop on Legal tools for open source hardware” took place at Eyebeam on March 17th and featured OH pioneers such as Arduino, Adafruit, Buglabs, MakerBot, Chumby as well as Jonathan Kuniholm (Open Prosthetics), Chris Anderson (Wired), Mako Hill (OLPC, Wikipedia), Becky Stern (Make), Jon Philips (Qi), Shigeru Kobayashi (Gainer), Thinh Nguyen and John Wilbanks (CC) and us (littleBits, Eyebeam). Since then we, and an incredible group of OH stars (Evil Mad Scientist, Parallax, Sparkfun, Lilypad), have started putting together a definition that today, we are very excited to release in version 0.3 for public comment.

Recently, I have been appointed as Creative Commons fellow – a very important step which shows CC’s commitment to our community.  And on September 23rd, Alicia Gibb (Buglabs) and myself are chairing the Open Hardware Summit as part of MakerFaire. We will be discussing the OH license, and hope to put version 1.0 out to the world!

So if you’re interested in open source hardware, it’s worth coming to New York in September. It should be an exciting event.

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Physicality, Conviviality, and Openness

Physicality, conviviality, and openness are the themes of a series of talks I gave last week to the HCI group at RWTH Aachen, thanks to Jan Borchers.  These three ideas run through most of the work I’ve been doing over the past few years, and they’ve cropped up in a number of my talks recently. Briefly:

Physicality: interaction is inherently physical because we have bodies.  Physical computing is a means of exploring how we can sense and respond to physical expression.

Conviviality: there’s been a lot of talk about the Internet of Things the past few years. I used to think it was a good idea, but now I see it as misleading.  Communications networks exist to facilitate the play of relationships. We should foreground the relationship rather than the thing that enables it.

Openness: open sharing of ideas can spur innovation and interconnection, that’s already known.  I think it can also spur innovation in how we close the loop from trash to raw materials.

The slideshows below are not proper essays on the topics, but they hopefully give an idea of where my thinking is on the topics at the moment.

Posted in environment, interaction design, open innovation, physical computing | Leave a comment

Practice, Practice, Practice

Ashlynn Dewey just sent me links to a new Nike+ ad that she ran across that reminded her of our physical computing class(thanks, Ash!). It’s a great video that shows a couple of supercool Japanese DJs making music on specially equipped Nike shoes. I really enjoyed it. Then I saw the “making of” video.

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Happy Ada Day, and thanks

Today being Ada Lovelace Day (though I’d like to see Grace Hopper day too), it seems a good time to say thank you to three women without whom I wouldn’t be doing what I do.

Stacy Horn, founder of Echo Communications. Echo was a successful online community before anyone had heard about social media, thanks to Stacy. Stacy literally changed the direction of my life one day by asking if I’d ever thought about going to grad school.  Then she told me about ITP, and that maybe I should apply. That was the best advice I ever got.

Red Burns, chair of the Interactive Telecommunications Program. No one I know has done more to teach both women and men that they can and should have a voice in how technologies are used. The word that usually comes to my mind when I think of her is empowerment. She has a way of making you realize that you have the power to change anything you want to.  You could say that she’s done a lot for getting more women involved in technology, but Red is more inclusive than that. She’s passionate about seeing to that everyone whose life is affected by tech has a voice in its use.  What I admire about Red is that she has no fear, nor any hesitation about telling you what she thinks.

Marianne Petit, my colleague, thesis advisor, and friend. One of the things I love about Marianne is that she’s gifted at using a whole range of technologies, and focuses on none.  Many of the people I know talk about how technology is just a tool to achieve greater ends. Marianne actually lives her life that way. She makes things that are personal, often funny, usually dark, and oddly happy; things that make you think that people are really messed up, but you feel good about them at the same time. A lot of artists make digital technology-driven art that never escapes the tools. Marianne just makes art, and happens to use digital technology in the process sometimes. She’s also involved in countless efforts aimed at making people’s lives better through the tools we work with.  And she apparently never sleeps.  She’s got a set of ideals that I greatly admire and try to live up to.

Stacy, Red, Marianne: thank you.  I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without you. And I wouldn’t be as happy.

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Random thoughts on consciousness and physical experience, coming together

I just had one of those wonderful moments where a bunch of ideas that had been floating around in my head for a number of years came together and made sense, thanks to a section of Alva Noë’s book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. In Chapter 4, he challenges the common metaphor for the brain as the “Mission Control”  of the body — the place where all stimulation comes in and is noted, processed, and responded to. Instead, he says, our perception, and even our reaction, is distributed throughout our body and even through our environment.  To counter this, he offers the example of a snail’s response to being touched. At first touch, the snail will recoil, but with repeated touches, the snail becomes habituated to the touch, and doesn’t recoil. The sensory neurons in the snail’s nervous system are linked to the motor neurons, and the response to the initial touch is to cue the motor neurons to move the snail away.  As repeated touches occur, the snail’s nervous system learns the pattern as “normal” and the connection between the motor neurons and the sensory stimulus is lessened over time.  There’s no central brain managing this — the change is a result of the connection between the neurons and the patterns of action in the environment in which the snail is embedded, argues Noë. It’s not just about the changing in the coupling between the sensory neurons and the motor neurons, because that change would not occur without the repeated pattern of touch that the snail encounters.  It all happens without a “mission control” brain to process it.

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