You're reading the archives for June 2011

Making meaning with our hands

We were invited by Ogilvy last month to run a “Future Making” workshop in Berlin for their annual planner’s conference. Future Making is a word I like to use to describe working with a mixture of highly technical tools and no-tech tools. We had Arduinos of course (and a crew of Tom, Cefn, Adrian, Nick and Andy) and some very simple tools like scissors, Play-Doh, card, plastic eyes etc. We got people to learn the basics of coding, electronics, product design and web design in 4 hours. Unbeknownst to them they were building prototypes of “internet of things”-type products.

After 5 years of running these types of workshops, I’m interested in the cognitive process we go through of understanding technology through making something with our hands. It’s not about the end product, but about the process of understanding the limitations involved in the making, in understanding what the components are capable of, how they bend, how they break, what makes them tick.

This isn’t new of course, that’s how we’ve always learnt but in these times of tippy tapping on iPhones and shiny surfaces as the new baby sitters, it’s good to remember the advantages of the tangible, using the whole of the hand and detailed work. We’re surrounded by incredibly forgiving interfaces that don’t require us to be particularly good at details. I wonder how this might affect us or even our expectations of the physical world. I wonder if there’s something about gestural interfaces that sort of is an extrapolation of the keyboard in a way that’s not useful. Sortof like the desktop metaphor of the 90s and how we still use a floppy disk as an icon for saving. Will we look back on the iPhone experience in 20 years and find it dated because we’re using our hands in different ways? Will Wii-like interfaces that focus away from the hand and towards the whole body take over, or Google voice make hands also unecessary? Dystopian futures of atrophied hands or strong thumbs and indexes? A generation of pointers.

As Marshall McLuhan famously said: We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

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