Make: Taking it Apart!
Beautiful, isn’t it? Sleek, simple, and communicating elegant, understated value.
But you can’t take it apart.
“Why do we care?” You may ask. After all, wouldn’t you rather have the iPad at left in your bag instead of the mass of wires below (figure 1)? Wouldn’t the iPad be a more welcome item in your backpack than, say, the homemade game (figure 2); or the messy, squishy circuits (figure 3)?
Yes and no.
The iPad represents the marriage of art and technology. No one can use a box of wires on a train. Art is about experience. Without art, technology has a hard time finding its way into our lives. User interface design and user experience is all about falling in love: creating a sensory experience; an emotional response. When we think about cultivating an entire user experience, art is the first thing we see. No professional piece of consumer technology is complete without an artist’s input.
The ability to present a user with a completed experience is a double-sided sword: it indicates a thing is “finished.” Most of us prefer to use something that feels finished.
There’s a subtle seduction happening here. While having a sleek, sweet piece of tech is awesome in your briefcase or in your pocket, and makes you look bomb in the coffee shop, it actually is taking you further and further from the creation process.
The truth is that all “how things work” discussions start by taking things apart. “Taking the hood off” is a critical part of understanding how things work. The game in figure 2, for instance, can be polished up and turned into a fabulous-looking game you can buy at your local store. But as anyone who has ever bought a board game without playing it first can tell you, pretty pieces aren’t what makes games work. (A beautiful game that works is better than a game that doesn’t have visual appeal. More on that later.)
What makes a game good? Lots of things. (This is a good, short piece on characteristics of good games.) But, in short, a good game has two main impacts on us: A good game makes us long to play it again, and a good game makes us look at a scenario in depth. (What makes a game good? Here’s my list.) So why does this matter? Because a good game involves strategy, logic, and critical thinking skills, as well as trying on another life: temporarily taking on the perspective of the character we are playing.
The most important aspect of any game is its ability to change our perspective – our identity. Games allow us to step into a different reality in which death is dealt out easily, new lives can be earned, and where we handle complex dynamics in a short period of time. (Anyone who has played Civilization understands the dynamics of nations and geography much better than if they’d spent the same amount of time in plain book study.)
Computer games, too, can teach us a great deal. There is much debate about the negative effects in this sphere, but one thing most experts agree on is that a variety of useful skills can be learned from computer games, including critical thinking skills as well as opportunities to lead, follow, teach, lose, try again, make friends, and inspire interest in history and culture. Perhaps even more importantly, games help us learn to make decisions, use strategies, and anticipate consequences. It can also help us learn to collaborate in all kinds of ways.
In general, games provide us with the opportunity to try, fail, and try again at simulated events which feel real, but aren’t.
Part 2 : Getting back to taking things apart…
So why is it important to take things apart? Simple: if you want to explore, understand, and really own it, you need to take it apart. This is true of computers, and any science: food, fight, or otherwise.
Games are useful to take apart and put back together again because they underscore an otherwise complex set of life lessons.
Example 1: choices we make early in the game greatly affect our choices later on. In a game with multiple sets or rounds, we have to think carefully starting at the beginning. (The fancy term for this is a sequential game. When we write out a sequential game, we call it the extensive form.) In real life, if we start out with bad choices, it can be hard to recover later.
Example 2: board games have everything to do with social relationships. He who can handily win a game, and still have everyone love him, can be trusted to make a decent living in the modern economy. Machiavelli has nothing on a truly great gamer. (Machiavelli, in case you haven’t read about him, basically said that the real player is the one who can win, and have everyone still cheering for them.)
When we go to create or modify games, we have to think about the kind of experience we want to create. Will it be competitive? Will it be cooperative? How do you win? How long will it take to play? What is gameplay like? All of these questions require stepping into the shoes of your players and taking on their perspectives. They change us from being consumers of experiences to being producers. This change in perspective is critical to how we view ourselves in the world. We do not need to simply accept the products, attitudes, and ideas of others. We have the power to create our own.
There’s a note of ominousness to the perfectly designed piece of technology, too. The closer we get to a sleek, perfect piece of technology, the closer we come to treating it as an oracle.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, and it makes us all feel like our proper role is not to pick it apart, but to either bow down to it, or burn it at the stake. Either way, if we aren’t questioning, we aren’t empowering ourselves to change it.
We don’t all need to empower ourselves in everything. For me (though not one of my students), I am satisfied that the vacuum works, and I feel no desire to take it apart. But I also know that if I really need to, I can get a screwdriver, a saw, and/or a hammer and get that thing apart. I know if I really need to, I can find out what makes it work, why it’s not working, and what I might need to fix it.
In general, we do not have to accept being cast as simply consumers of technology. We get to have a say. This is the journey of humanity: we make tools to improve our lives. We are fundamentally producers of technology. It has never been more important to remember this than it is now. Technology will soon become so intertwined with the average person that it will cease to be visible. At that point, if we don’t know how to think about what we don’t see, we will become complicit in our own dependence. (Want extra senses? Get a magnet implanted!)
Nanobots that protect us from disease? Sounds great! Do those bots have the potential to release accidental poisons into my bloodstream? Or could someone hijack them and release disease? Maybe I should think that through. The future is here, and to make smart choices, we will have to be able to understand what we can’t see.
In short, we used to have to decide for ourselves about technology because we had to actively choose it. In a short time, however, we will have to actively opt out if we wish to avoid it. We still have an opportunity to affect how humanity embraces nanotechnology, for example. It is up to us whether we face the technological future as informed global citizens, or not.
Technology has the power to either ennoble humanity or to turn us into mindless meat. We must know how to understand the technology that is layering itself into our lives. Above all, we must have the ability to understand the choices we will be presented with. This is the new literacy.
It is purposeful to mindfully make, think, do, and take things apart. This is how we become technologically literate; how our future can remain in our own hands. In the Internet of Things future that will wash over us like a wave in the next decade, our most important tool might be the simplest: a screwdriver.