Brian Feeney

On Tinkering and Changing the World

There was a time when the edges of technological achievement were within the bounds of the common man, but we've long since left that time and that human-machine relationship. It was the age of the radio, the car, the home chemistry set. The new but everyday objects in our homes were mechanically advanced, but no so far as to prevent tinkering or achieving an amateur-level expertise over them. I'm thinking about the 1950s and -60s, and I suggest reading Richard Feynman's memoirs to get a sense of the fun and excitement that could be had from building your own microscope or fixing a broken television.

Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson has been giving an inspiring talk all over the place, his thesis being that we've lost our passion for scientific discovery and exploration and we should get it back. He is most certainly right about that. The de-funding, and hence sunsetting, of NASA is a perfect example of how our interests have waned with regard to science, and space in particular. It's sad. But who's fault is it?

Can we blame politicians or our educational programs for the change in attitude? I don't think so. What happened was that so many of the objects we use everyday have advanced far beyond our ability to comprehend how they work. We can't tinker with them. We can't open them up, poke around, and figure out how they work on our own, and so we feel distanced from them. Most (all?) of our cars have engines packed under the hood so tightly that it's impossible for non-professionals to get inside them. Gone are the days Dad would jack up the car and roll under it with that board on wheels to fix a carburetor or whatever (I don't know anything about cars).

The space program was exciting because it still seemed possible any one of us might one day visit the moon, or maybe even live there. Fifty years ago, it was a far out thought but not universally considered unachievable. And at the time it was just as believable as a pocket-sized portable phone that could take video and instantly share it with someone on the other side of the planet. The mid-century utopian dreams for our living rooms and kitchens didn't take into consideration how far removed we would become from the machinations inside our technology. They assumed we'd always be able to understand and tinker with our possessions, but they were wrong.

I fear that we may never get back to a place where anything seems possible. We've become hyper-realistic about where the future is headed. When we do see something new, the reaction is usually a casual, passive fascination, not a passionate drive to become an active part of it. Science fiction went from being fanciful to dystopian to just plain dramatic fiction with spaceships or robots (a major generalization of the genre, I know). We've stopped looking outward and have turned our gaze more solidly upon ourselves. It's not only unadventurous, it is also cynical, and partly explains why we have become so self-centered.

How do we fix this? Maybe we've already started. If the problems which now catch our collective imagination are more culturally centered, we need to give everyone the ability to get involved. If we can't tinker with the inner-workings of our iPhones and televisions, maybe we can find a way to interact directly with culture itself. The Kony2012 thing was a disaster a bazillion times over, but it went viral because people really want to help (if passively), and if we can somehow make it easier for people to get involved with solving humanitarian crises, then I think we should. That might -- just maybe -- be within the reach of future technological advancements re our globally connected social networks and egalitarian informational resources. Can Facebook become a tool for actual positive change in the world, like solving world hunger or global warming? If your first instinct is to laugh, I bet your second is to think about it for just a moment. After all, Twitter played a not insignificant role in the Arab Spring revolution of 2011. So . . . maybe?

There are designers who are constantly calling on us to choose design projects which help rather than hinder. It's a worthy compulsion. And I think one of the ways we get closer to making this happen is to find new ways to tinker with our world (or point us back to some of the old). If we can reinvigorate a relationship with how everything works, maybe we might start dreaming big again.

March 20, 2012