Hacking as a way of knowing

On a beautiful weekend in early May 2009, Bill Turkel and I invited about two dozen people to a three-day, hands-on hacking workshop at InterAccess to explore the problem of electronic waste. We asked this diverse group to work together in small teams to create objects that incorporated ‘nature’ in some form. We also wanted their work to intentionally call some basic assumptions into question. At their disposal were open source micro controllers, some simple electronic and mechanical parts, and a scavenged heap of consumer electronics.

Some amazing projects came out of this unusual collection of people and things. One group used the thermal transfer paper from an old fax machine to create a computer controlled projector that scrolled through old fax messages, displaying them on a large wall. Another group used a news feed aggregator to control mechanisms from an old record player and two printers.

My partner, Cindy Poremba, and I built a mechanical flower that ‘bloomed’ only under artificial light. We started with an electronic circuit called a light-listener, which turns certain characteristics of light into sound. Because artificial lights pulse at 60 cycles per second, you can use a circuit like this to hear the difference between artificial and natural light. If you then feed the output of that circuit into a micro controller instead of a speaker, you can perform a variety of actions based on that distinction. We chose to have our micro controller activate a motor that made the flower bloom under artificial light and wilt in sunlight. We did this as a way of starting a conversation about the natural and the artificial.

The experience and the inspiration of other projects got me thinking deeply about our methods and forms of scholarly expression. Over thousands of years, we’ve developed very sophisticated ways of making arguments through words. The Hacking Workshop suggested that we might also find more regular and more recognized ways to make our arguments through things. More on this in the coming months. In the meantime, if you want to organize your own hacking workshop, see Bill Turkel’s instructions here. Below, you’ll find some pictures from this great event.