07 June 2007


When I was a young kid, LEGOs were a big part of my life. I used to love sitting around, building random cars and buildings. Unfortunately, there were only so many LEGOs my parents could afford, much less my own LEGO robotics set. Since I didn't have a good organization system, either, I used to spend the majority of my construction time looking for little parts that I was sure had to be there, but that I often couldn't find. But my desire to build never stopped at LEGO. Throughout my childhood, I never lost my fascination for building with wood blocks, scraps of wood, nails, rocks, hay twine, bits of wire, etc. Basically, I would build with whatever I had around.

Originally for my thesis, I had considered making a low-cost and appropriable construction kit, but for some reason, that never set quite right with me, never inspired me to work for it. After running two sets of workshops in Scotland centered around constructing with wire and other local materials, I realized that it wasn't the materials and parts I wanted to supply, but the ideas and knowledge with which to work with whatever materials were locally available. From this realization, I came to the idea of creating a sort of wiki/blog hybrid, a way to have both the sort of project-based how to combined with a construction encyclopedia. Here are some of the thoughts that went along with this change of idea.

First, I've always been frustrated with what I've been able to find on the internet construction-wise. Either there is a sort of how to, or there is the encyclopedia/textbook. If you end up working with the how to community, it can be rewarding, especially if you're the type of person who already has a good grasp on how to make things. For the beginner, though, this can be intimidating, and one sometimes has trouble knowing where to start. If you end up going to a construction encyclopedia/textbook, it can also be rewarding, but if you lack the assumed vocabulary of talking about these topics (fatigue, creep, moments, force, leverage, torque, power, etc), sometimes it's hard to grasp how the general ideas can be applied to projects. I propose that there should be some sort of way to traverse between these two worlds, between the specific and the general knowledge. The most logical and obvious way I can think of doing this is to have some sort of community/database of projects centered around making things which links back to a database/wiki/encyclopedia which talks about the general ideas (and vice versa). In doing so, you could, for example, read about a mechanism type and then see how it's used in various materials/machines. Or maybe if you had a large quantity of, say, cardboard, you could see how other people have used cardboard in their projects. By providing different ways of searching through projects and information, the user can build up an intuition about how things can be used and get ideas of how new concepts can be used in their own projects. Tentatively, I'm calling this the Idea Melting Pot, or IMP for short. My hope is that this website will function as just that, as a place where people can put their ideas and get ideas from other people, as a place where ideas can combine and meld and lead to new ideas.

Second, although I played with LEGOs, model rocket kits, Erector sets, etc., as a kid, the older I got, the more frustrated I was with these kits. The kits would come precisely with what you needed to make what the instructions said and you could make that, but it never was quite yours, you know? Say, for example, you bought a LEGO kit, no matter how large, you'd construct it with their instructions, and it would be beautiful, and you'd be so proud that you could follow instructions and make such a nice thing. Then you'd take it apart and try to make something of your own from the parts, and it would suck. You'd be disappointed and think that your ideas were no good. And then you'd give up for a while until you got a new kit. At least, that happened to me all the time as a kid, and is one of the reasons I didn't think I could build things well most of my life. From a learning perspective, ease of construction does not always equal greater learning or even greater accessibility. It seems that so much time and energy is spent on making kits that are easy and intuitive to use, easy to assemble, easy to buy and consume, with easy to follow instructions for an easy to grasp experience. It's not in the ease where you learn, it's in the struggle. When kits constantly provide you with good builds following their instructions, you learn that your ideas are not as “good” as their ideas. When the TV constantly shows “talented” people who are instantly good at things without having to work hard, you learn that failures are bad and that if you fail you aren't “talented.” When school constantly emphasises good grades, you learn that there's always a “right” and “wrong” and that you should be embarrassed when you're wrong. And I think this is completely ridiculous. You learn when you fail. “Failure” should be encouraged. Experimentation should be rewarded. We should learn the value of starting sloppily.

Third, again from a learning standpoint, by having the parts supplied for you in these kits, you never have to think of how to design the parts yourself. When kits are designed with connections and spacings in mind, users of these kits never learn how to reason their way through the design process from material to part. By not going through the thought process from material to part, builders miss out particularly on concepts in geometry, in joining, and in material choice. More generally, users don't always grasp how concepts can be transferred from one material to another. In addition to addressing new content, the ability to design your own parts also allows for the inclusion of aesthetic considerations into the part designs and the design of the whole.

Fourth, the older I become the more anti-consumer culture I become. Why do we need these construction kits, anyway, when there is tons of usable material being thrown away each day? Why not, instead, provide people with a way/resource to use the materials they have available, to encourage people to do so? In addition to easing the barrier to exploring concepts that were previously thought incapable of being explored (either by something being unavailable or too costly), this potentially provides for the knowledge of local uses of various materials to spread to places where these materials are also found. I think that we should enable and encourage creative re-use instead of encouraging the purchase and consumption of pre-designed construction kits.

Anyway. Just a few of my thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Laura... I read your entry... I think it gives a very nice historical background of your preferences and work.

    I think people lack a lot of the building and creative skills because of the lack of things to build with. I think you were pretty to have found an environment at home that had both, the support and the materials to develop those skills. I still think there is an important role on computation on the prototype building, but I definely relate to your thoughts... look at the work Fred Martin is doing at UMASS. His main research interest is on Engaging Computing and he interested in developing "ultra-rapid prototyping" experiences... http://www.cs.uml.edu/~fredm/

    I also think you found an important role for digital technologies... the wiki is great!!

    Good luck with your writing!!!