The Accidental Tinkerer, Unexpected Lock-in, and Fatherhood

Ben Fry recently explained his concerns about the iPad:

I want to build software for this thing. I’m really excited about the idea of a touch-screen computing platform that’s available for general use from a known brand who has successfully marketed unfamiliar devices to a wide audience.
It represents an incredible opportunity, but I can’t get excited about it because of Apple’s attempt to control who creates for it, and what they can create for it. Their policy of being the sole distributor of applications, and even worse, requiring approval on all applications, is insulting to developers.
I find it offensive on a very basic level, because I know that if such restrictions were in place when I was first learning to write software — mostly on Apple machines, no less — I would not have a career in the field.

John Lilly followed up brilliantly:

In a nutshell, what worries me about the trajectory of computing is not so much the emergence of tightly-controlled, non-tinkerable boxes, but the presumption that “normal people” don’t ever want to tinker, don’t want to be bothered with understanding how things work. I think it’s not true, really — certainly not for everyone — but I even think that this distinction between “normal people” and “tinkerers” or “techies” or “makers” is bogus at best, and really dangerously corrosive at worst.
It’s not like I was born an engineer — the instinct to fiddle with things isn’t something we’re born with. I became a tinkerer because I was exposed to surfaces that allowed — that invited — it. I figured out that I liked tweaking and building and creating because I got a bunch of chances to do that stuff, from hardware to software and everything in between. I knew I could do it because Dad modeled that behavior, but also because the stuff we had around the house was inspectable and malleable.
We all have the potential inside us to make things. But we’re not born into the world as makers — the world around us — the people in it and the artifacts in it — help us to discover what we can be.

I don’t know that I agree 100% with John: not everyone is a tinkerer. But, for sure, we need “surfaces that invite tinkering,” otherwise those who would be tinkerers might never discover it.

I was a tinkerer from an early age, but most of my tinkering in the physical world sucked, because, well, I don’t have good instincts about physics or analog things: I’m a digital kind of guy. So my egg-drop competition entries were overly complicated, my solar ovens were a perfect fit for a raw diet, my matchstick suspension bridges were unsafe at any speed, and my analog-circuit-based room-alarm systems would go off at random times in the middle of the night, or not at all, but at least would consistently end up blowing out the LED indicator (what do you mean you can’t connect the power source straight to the LED?)

I might have given up on tinkering, were it not for software… that was something else.

When my father brought home our first computer, a Thomson MO5, I was hooked. I spent hours transcribing BASIC programs from the 3 magazines I could find on the topic (this was Paris, France, not exactly Silicon Valley.) My dad took me to the office so I could talk to some Thomson engineers and debug my floppy disk drive. Later came the TO7, and eventually the Apple IIGS, my first “major” Pascal program to help my mother schedule carpooling (and my first taste of how hard it is to write a scheduling algorithm), my second “major” Pascal program to manage the Prom guest list. I wrote my final Geography report using a page-layout program on the Apple IIGS that probably cost me hours of extra time because of its bugs and the work-arounds I had to find, and got a worse grade for it because “not everyone can afford such fancy software, so we took off a couple of points” (for those of you still confused, THAT is socialism.) Not long after that I was applying to MIT and tinkering with one of the first e-commerce web sites. I love what I do, but would I have discovered this love without those first few lines of BASIC on that MO5 computer, written without anyone’s permission or knowledge?

Over time, though, I have become a little bit complacent about openness. I own an iPhone, and I’ve bought a few apps. I bought music on iTunes, and figured the DRM was not so problematic. I got a Kindle and bought some books. And then one day Apple’s DRM server went down and I couldn’t play music for a few hours. And Amazon decided to recall the book “1984”. And Apple decided to retroactively remove a bunch of apps they considered “not useful enough.” So I started thinking, maybe it’s time to get a different phone.

But I can’t. See, in the interim, I got unexpectedly locked in. I sync my calendar via MobileMe. I sync my music/TV shows via iTunes. Moving to something like a Palm Pre is going to take a significant effort. So how much worse will it be if I get an iPad, get some apps, and Apple decides to change the rules in a way that I don’t like? How locked in will I be then?

This change is happening gradually. At no point are you going to be shocked by an unfortunate Apple decision. You’ll enjoy your iPad, you’ll buy more apps, you’ll enjoy it even more. Apple will make a few decisions that inconvenience you, but you’ll deal. Until one day you’re inconvenienced enough that you might begin to look elsewhere. But you won’t be able to, because your data will be locked in. 3 years ago, we didn’t even have 3rd-party apps on the iPhone. Today, we have more than 100,000, and they’re all rushing to the iPad at warp speed. Change is happening.

One last point. A few months ago, I became a father. My wonderful little boy has an incredible appetite for life. Will he be a tinkerer? I don’t know, but if I had to bet I’d say yes. Will I be able to do for him what my father did for me? What will he tinker with, if everything in the house is a polished, professional, touch-but-don’t-tinker device? If he is to be a maker, a tinkerer, will he be able to fully explore his ideas if the rules of his digital universe are decided by the whims of Apple, Facebook, and Google?

I’m not sure. Maybe he will find a way, the way that kids do. Or maybe we, the generation that is witnessing this change, need to make sure that the rules of computing do not become a permanent, universal, inescapable sandbox.

7 thoughts on “The Accidental Tinkerer, Unexpected Lock-in, and Fatherhood

  1. Scott, that tinkering is certainly healthy, but it’s still within the bounds of what Apple allows.

  2. Cars are an interesting comparison technology. It used to be that *everyone* had to be a car tinkerer because they just didn’t run right and keep running by themselves. You learned how to do maintenance, how to tweak, adjust, etc. And then we put in catalytic converters and to make sure you guaranteed emissions we stopped you from mucking around with timing, etc. We got rid of carburetors and replaced them with fuel injectors. We got rid of timing belts and camshafts and went to electronic valves. We removed a lot of the tinkerable parts. We killed a lot of the innovation in that space. We also reduced auto pollution a ton and made cars safer.

    Was it a good tradeoff? Are there fewer auto mechanics than there used to be because of this? Have we lost something fundamental to our culture and society?

    I don’t know the answer.

  3. good point Andy: my dad used to tinker with cars.

    There are two issues at play.

    First, technology gets more complicated. Undoubtedly, most people can’t really mess around with a modern computer’s physical circuitry, much like you can’t easily rebuild the engine of a hybrid car.

    But the tinkering layer can very well move “up the stack” like everything else. No mucking with circuitry, but definitely mucking with software. As for cars, they, too, could be more open:

  4. Yeah, I’ve been a non-fan of the proprietary black boxes for some time. That said, I really do think there are interesting similarities here. There are some good estimates that in CA a huge portion of the auto pollution comes from either old cars, or people messing around with the computers in their cars. They run them all out normally, and then replace it with stock firmware just in time for their annual smog test. They impose a pretty nasty cost on the rest of us by their behavior.

    The trick here of course is finding just the right mix of open and closed/restricted/governed to get the right results. And I’m not saying I have the answer, but it is an interesting question.

  5. To me the thing is not can you tinker with anything in particular (here the iPad). The trend is towards that you cannot tinker with anything.


    * Cars that you can’t repair yourself.

    * Genetically modified seeds, that you can’t “reuse”.

    * Cell phones where a ring-tune developer cannot upload their own work without paying.

    * Printers that are programmed to stop working when they think the ink is low (not when it actually is low)

    * You need a lawyer in court, if you don’t want to be smashed.

    So maybe I don’t want to repair the car, because I’m not interested, I would like to develop my own ring=tone. For my neighbour it may be the other way around.

    The trend is to look at people as not more than consumers.


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