Hacking and Making, Lost Arts?

As technology has advanced, we seem to have lost something important along the way. We used to be creators of technological things but there’s now an increasing tendency for us to be consumers. Back in the 70s if you wanted a computer you had to make one. At least by then there were LSI chips and kits like the one that famously inspired Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Making things was an excellent and inspirational way of learning about technology. Increasingly now, we buy the tech we need. This is a lot less fun and it leaves a significant gap between the way we’d like things done and the devices we have to live with.

For some reason the desire to make what you can’t buy appears to be gradually returning, as evidenced by the advent of “hackspaces”, “fablabs” and home hacking in general. This is despite the resistance created by health and safety issues associated with tools, soldering etc. Groups like “Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG)” are appearing.

I was glad to discover a BBC program on this on Radio 4 recently (hopefully still on iPlayer by the time you read this). This contains coverage of the excellent London Hackspace (well done guys) and a reference to the “FabLab” work of the MIT Media Lab’s Bits and Atoms programme, capably explained by Neil Gershenfeld in this TED Talk of a few years ago.

One of the first things that the Beeb commentator had to explain was that the term “hacking” originally referred not to acts of greed or malice but simply making things work in ways that were not originally intended – “just for fun” (also the title of Linus Torvald’s book”. See MIT’s gallery of hacks for some examples of old-style hacks. I guess both of these meanings will inevitably stick but, to us, hacking is benign.

Mobile App development is one of the few areas inspiring the digital generations to innovate. I attended this year’s “OverTheAir” “hackathon” at Bletchley Park recently. Great venue, interesting talks and hundreds of people hacking interesting stuff over a 2-day event. (Visit this venue anytime to see some fabulous tech history.)

Just as I was thinking that I had all the mobile app I’d ever need, Google made Android into a platform for physical device innovation with their Android Accessory Development Kit (ADK). It’s early days for this architecture that bridges the mobile world with that of electronics and I hope to see some interesting innovation around this. Our hack at OverTheAir make use of this to build an “Internet of Things” device based on an Android phone. That became the orb mentioned on this blog recently.

I really do hope that this dying art of the the “maker” is in a sustainable revival. I particularly hope that kids will get the kind of support and encouragement that we did back in the 60s when making things was a more respected pastime. “Maker Faires” that attract young and old makers alike are cropping up across the globe. It would be great to see a return within the educational system to practical science teaching that inspires, enables and supports innovation.