What would be onederful?
LENS × BLOCK
World as Construction Kit
Edited video with better sound
Chapters 1 & 2
Chapters 3 - 9
Lens × Block
World as Construction Kit
Jay Saul Silver
B. Electrical Engineering, Georgia Tech (2002)
M. Phil. Internet Technology, Cambridge (2003)
M. Media Tech., M.I.T. (2008)
Submitted to the Program in Media Arts and Sciences
School of Architecture and Planning
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
© 2014 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.
Discovery can be defined as the process of re-seeing the world we live in as Hooke proposes. Discovery can be considered as building something as Wright suggests. What if we do both simultaneously, taking a lens and combining it with a block?
Purpose and meaning of the physical world can be re-assigned and re-made by individuals as they go rather than being pre-fixed by people who came before them. But this mindset is more rare than it should be if we want an empowered population full of creative powerful beings. So can we make special tools that by design help people to put into practice the mindset and actionable behavior that: The World is a Construction Kit? We can, and in fact people have already done so with some existing tools which I will present. Then, I will present several new digital construction kits with a focus on two, Drawdio and Makey Makey, that are designed to focus attention on the world as the construction kit. Rather than combining kit-parts that come in a box, participants take pieces of the world they live in and re-purpose and re-combine these everyday objects from their life.
I formalize this type of construction kit, explaining how it takes the constructive aspect of a traditional wooden block, and the world-transforming multiplicative aspect of the traditional looking glass lens, to make a block-and-lens-in-one, which I call a Constructive Lens. I consider traditional construction kits like LEGO, or kits that aren't necessarily thought of as "construction kits" per se, like Painting Kits: Brush/Paint/Canvas, and show how to transform these traditional construction kits, which offer their own pre-fixed components, to the realm where the world, that is the everyday objects in one’s life, is instead acting as the components of the kit.
The ultimate goal of the thesis is to show how we can we make tools and activities, “Constructive Lenses,” that, by design, catalyze:
re-seeing (lens) the everyday world as something we can re-make (block)
The thesis approaches this goal through a rich narrative with thick description of design studies and case studies, intended to experientially model the process of motivating, making, and deploying Constructive Lenses to hundreds of thousands of people.
LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research
Academic Head, Program in Media Arts and Sciences
Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT
Lecturer and Research Advisor, Digital Media Arts and Instructional Design, Harvard University
I. Introduction -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
a. Re-Seeing (story about Nature Awareness)
b. Re-Making (story about Staying with Natives)
c. Coalescing of Thesis Ideas and Research Questions
a. The success and failure of Camera for the Invisible
b. Intellectual Traditions Drawn on and “World as Palette” Extension
c. Looking Ahead (Drawdio and MaKey MaKey explained briefly)
a. Lenses and Blocks
b. Constructive Lenses
c. World as Construction Kit
II. Design ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
4. Constructive Lenses in the World
a. Open Lego
b. Open Construction Kits
c. Some Existing Constructive Lenses
5. Drawdio Genesis
a. Nature Sensing Adventure
b. Electronics Hacking in India
c. The Making of an Invention Kit at MIT
6. Makey Makey Genesis
a. Computer Crafting
b. App Dumpster Diving
III. Workshops and Discussion ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
7. Drawdio Case Studies
a. Workshops in a Camp and a Museum
b. Workshops at MIT
c. Workshops in Silicon Valley
8. Makey Makey Case Studies
a. Workshop at a Conference
b. Workshops at Maker Faires
c. “Workshops” in the Wild
a. Tricks and Design Guidelines for Making Constructive Lenses
b. Sample Project Spaces
Thanks and Gratitude
The mindset that the everyday world is malleable and I can take creative action on and with it is crucial to solving future unknown problems [Louv, 2008, Last Child in the Woods] and to being able to playfully reimagine one’s world and oneself [Silver, 2014, This Thesis Just Now Above this Line].
But what type of learning tools can be designed to directly catalyze such a world view?
As a teenager I was reading some literature reviews of Thoreau’s writing, and someone, maybe it was Walt Whitman, said (paraphrased, as even the internet can’t help me find this one): “Thoreau’s writing has the quality of a good country western, he rides in on a horse and dust is flying everywhere, the rider shoots bullets in all directions, some hit their target, some miss, and some deflect and hit the rider, but what a show!”
The direction to which I strive in my writing style in this thesis shall be exactly as described. I want to put on a fantastic show, and risk death! Here it goes...
Although the MIT Registrar’s office has rejected the concept formally, let it be known here that this thesis was written in collaboration with all beings, and specifically the co-author M. Nature, and for philosophical purposes I share credit and copyright and my PhD degree with M. Nature.
I am inspired by natives’ abilities to see the world they live in as a construction kit: leaves, rocks, plants, are building blocks. What types of tools can we design to catalyze this action in our modern largely human-made environment? Traditional lenses, like magnifying glasses, make it more likely that we can see things we couldn’t otherwise easily see. Traditional blocks, like wooden blocks, catalyze us to build structures, like castles, without which we would not as easily build. What is a metaphorical “lens” that helps us to see the pieces of the world we live in, pencils, houseplants, old cans, as if those things were metaphorical “building blocks” ready to be rearranged and remixed into new creations? What hardware or software, set of instructions, or other product or information or ritual, can we offer to human beings, that would catalyze a behavior of repurposing and remixing the everyday objects they live with to give those objects new meaning and new purpose, different from their original meaning and purpose? Just re-seeing is not enough for me, it is re-seeing the world as something that can be re-made that is the goal. This thesis addresses the challenge of:
designing tools that catalyze the direct action of re-making the everyday world
Tools that allow you to see your fingerprints or see the tiny molecules inside of a blueberry are just lenses; cool as those things may be, they don’t systematically lead to direct creative action. Tools that result in you discovering your fingerprints and then deciding to dip them in smushed up blueberries and make an artistic image by stamping your finger print out onto your friend’s face, are Constructive Lenses: you have seen your fingerprint as a stamping machine, you have seen blueberry as paint, and used them both to make the world a different place. You have taken fingerprints, you have taken blueberries, neither of whose explicit purpose is to create a tattoo-mask for your friend, and you have given them new purpose and made a tattoo-mask on your friend’s face.
Example: Trash Tower
To build a tower out of blocks is to take creative action on the construction kit which is included in the box. To build a tower out of soda cans in the recycling bin is to see trash and soda cans in a new way, as if they were building blocks, and to take action on them to make something new.
The soda cans are not pre-designated as a construction kit, they are the everyday world being repurposed to become a construction kit. The blueberries and fingerprints are not a construction kit in a box, they are the everyday world we live in being repurposed to become a construction kit. To create this new type of seeing is to catalyze the seeing of the World as Construction Kit. In doing so, the world starts to look reconfigurable, less fixed, more possibilitized. Purpose becomes internalized and re-determinable, fluid and changeable, not something cast down upon us by some official third party. Locus of control migrates more toward the internal, creative confidence grows with direct experience of making the world different, first small, then bigger. This is the goal of the “Constructive Lens” which is the result of crossing the Block with the Lens.
The thesis will go into great detail analyzing the effects of releasing two digital Constructive Lenses that I made into the wild: Drawdio and Makey Makey. By analyzing seven workshops, and looking at some cases of use in the wild, we will see specifically what types of re-making and re-purposing of the everyday world can happen using these two tools. Then I will offer folk wisdom and design guidelines for creating other types of Constructive Lenses with a special analysis of the role of the Sample Project Space.
Ten years ago, I went on a nature walk at Kenburn Orchards in Western Massachusetts. It was led by a 19-year-old named Connor. We made fire with sticks. I thought why are we doing this when we already know how to make fire with technology. He showed us some bird calls. He really cared about talking to the birds, and some of them answered back. I did not understand what the big deal was. What’s the use in talking to birds? Then when we were walking on the trail he stopped me and pointed to the ground. Jay, you’re not getting this Nature awareness thing, I seemed to hear him say subverbally, as he said, “I’ll be back in 5 minutes. When I come back, tell me -- what do you see?” I crouched down low and looked at the mud on the ground that he was pointing to. I thought, well, I think it’s mud. But there must be something more to it. Maybe he’s playing a trick on me and it’s actually poop. Or maybe I should look really close ‘cause there are some bugs down there. I kept looking and looking and he came back and I felt confused and silly and I blurted out, “Is it mud?”
He put his finger to the ground and traced a shape on the ground... and then... I saw it! It was an animal foot print. A deer hoof he said. I spotted another, and soon another. I started to see lots of deer hooves. And then lots of animal prints of other sorts, birds and other mammals that I couldn’t identify. But until he opened my eyes -- the prints were totally invisible.
I started to wonder, “What else am I not seeing that is right in front of me?”
I could stop right here, because this simple question, “What am I not seeing in my everyday life?” Is enough to keep me fascinated forever.
So I left the Nature walk and went back to Boston, but I wanted to learn more about seeing the invisible. I wanted to apply what I had learned in nature to the reality of my urban life in Boston.
Re-Making (Story about Staying with Natives)
A year later, I found myself staying with some Ngäbe (known to me at the time as Guaymí) natives in Costa Rica. I watched and worked with them for many days and they seemed to have an ability to see right through things. They saw the waterproof-ness and shape of the leaves and chose them carefully to put together their roofs. They made medicine out of other leaves by smushing them up and combining them with something from the ground, not sure what.
They knew which fibers were in different leaves that they could take out of the leaves and roll into strings and then weave bags. Take this palm frond apart and peel little threads off of it and then she would roll the threads together and make little thicker threads like strings and she would weave the strings together. As the materiality of this exact very bag formed before my eyes over those 3 days, the materiality of the way the world works, of reality, started to unravel in my mind.
Figure 1.1. The author, Jay Silver, holding a Ngäbe made bag which he watched a Ngäbe woman make over 3 days from nothing but naturally occurring materials in her environment. (Image taken by TED videographer)
Because I realized that this bag, and your trampoline, and your clothes, and your pencil sharpener, everything you have is made out of either a tree or a rock or something you dug out of the ground and did some process to, maybe a more complicated one, but still everything was made that way. So I had to start studying who is making these decisions? who is making these things that our world consists of? how do they make them? what stops people from making them?
I realized that they weren’t just seeing the invisible, but they were making things out of the invisible. Making changes to the environment based on what they were seeing. They were re-making.
I returned to Boston again, and this time I started to try to see through the concrete in my environment just like the plants in the rain forest. What is inside of the sidewalk? Why do blades of grass grow through some cracks or are they causing the cracks? And, most importantly, how can I re-make my modern urban environment?
I started trying to see the invisible, and to turn it into something constructive. I joined a dumpster diving team. We called dumpsters “Urban Gardens” and we called dumpster diving “Urban harvesting.” We would go out and collect the night’s harvest, naked juice, bread, almonds, vegetables, etc. in a biodiesel farm truck that ran on reclaimed oil. Back in those days we got the used vegetable oil from a little restaurant called “the middle east” so the joke was that we got our oil from the middle east. We ran a community supported agriculture model of dumpster diving, which means we let people pay $3 for a box before we went out, then we’d split the harvest equally when we returned. We’d bring the food home and each person would get enough food for about one week.
I started to see harvestable food everywhere. I had done it! I had learned to re-see, and not only that, I could re-purpose “trash” to “food” and recreate my world.
Starting 8 years ago, I began studying how people re-see the invisible in the modern urban environment and then re-make it. Over that time I introduced several tools into people’s hands and watched how it affected their ability to re-see and re-make the world they live in. The rest of the thesis tells the story with my ups and downs, with a narrative that is based primarily around the development of 3 of these technologies:
- Camera for the Invisible
- MaKey MaKey
The thesis discusses how these 3 tool-based experiences influenced the actions people took and the way people looked at the world. In the next section I’ll introduce a name for the type of tool I’m aiming to create; it will be called a Constructive Lens. A Constructive Lens, as I’ll explain, is designed to help people re-see (lens) and re-make (constructive) the everyday world they live in, both at the same time.
No thesis is a straight path, and many things happened that influenced my thought patterns toward focusing in on this thesis topic. I will now present 3 windows into my thought patterns that are meant to be representative of how I was thinking about
2) re-making, and
3) theories around learning
This will allow the reader to glimpse into various resonant thoughts I had over and over again throughout the last 8 years and understand better where I am coming from and where I am motivated to head towards. This is how the thesis actually evolved in my mind nonlinearly.
After learning about the power of Nature Awareness, I started to learn more about the “Beginner’s Mind” or how to see as if seeing for the first time. I started watching young and inexperienced people approach things, and I interviewed a number of Nature Awareness experts. Here is my favorite quote from the interviews, this quote comes from Erik Plakanis who is a professional Nature Awareness Guide at “A Walk in the Woods,” as well as some photo outtakes from a video of some of my favorite moments in trying to see with a beginner’s mind.
Window Into My Thoughts 1.1. An excerpt from an interview I conducted with a Nature Awareness Guide and some photos of my son experiencing various phenomena for the first time ever.
Similarly to the above I would look out in my everyday life for examples of ways I could take re-seeing to a new level and turn it into re-making and re-purposing:
These ideas about re-seeing and re-making were overlaid upon a landscape of reading about learning theorists. The theories of my favorite authors mixed with my own theories led me to have daydreaming sessions about human potential. Here’s one of the thought patterns influenced by learning theorist Ivan Illich, one of 8 or more important “learning saints” in my personal cosmology, with more of the “learning saints” listed at the bottom:
Window Into My Thoughts 1.3. An example of my underlying motivations fueled by revolutionary learning philosophers. From left to right: Eleanor Duckworth, Rudolf Steiner, Ivan Illich, Maria Montessori, John Taylor Gatto, Paulo Freire, Grace Llewellyn, Larry Harvey.
Based on my 8 years of experimenting and daydreaming, I started asking these questions which are now the central questions posed in this thesis:
There is currently no wide analysis of Constructive Lenses. I will introduce two well-played out, solid examples of such a tool
- in many different situations
- over a long time
- with many people
- both in the wild and in facilitated workshops
I will discuss not just the technical features of the two tools, but also the historical genesis in thick description [Geertz, In the Interpretation of Cultures 1973, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture]. I will also discuss other existing tools, some made by myself and collaborators and some made by others, that could be called Constructive Lenses, and how to change existing tools to become Constructive Lenses.
How do Constructive Lenses affect the workflow and re-purposing behaviors, as well as the thinking and learning, of people like Beginners? Experts? Academics? Professionals? What do these people do with Constructive Lenses out in the wild and in workshops? I will run and display the results of 9 workshops and show results of use in the wild including interviews and photos.
Are there principles that help tie together the design of all these different tools? What design approaches are the most successful historically at generating tools that are as close as possible to being Constructive Lenses? What intentions are likely to lead to good Constructive Lens designs? If others were to try to design Constructive Lenses, what set of wisdom should they keep in mind? I will offer dozens of tips and generative constructs to help others and my future self form Constructive Lenses. Hopefully the advice is applicable to design in general but especially creative tools and specifically Constructive Lenses.
On my quest to learn how other people catalyze and teach re-seeing and re-making the world they live in, I found out about professor Anne Spirn, who was researching the hidden urban nature in modern society with her students. Here is the cover of her book:
Figure.2.1. Left. Anne Spirn’s book cover “Granite Garden.” Right. My markup of Anne Spirn’s book cover to show one macro perspective on how the city we live in can be thought of as urban nature. (Image reproduced from book cover of Granite Garden by Anne Spirn)
Anne’s students’ use regular cameras as one of their main tools. I interviewed a number of students.
One of her students had drawn this diagram.
Figure 2.2. Map of wind near the intersection of Mass Ave. and Marlborough St. in Boston. (Image reproduced from project by Anne Sprin’s student)
This diagram was made by the student sticking a licked finger in the air and measuring the wind speed and direction at each point on the street intersection and inward into the courtyard. But what was at the circle with the “X” in it? This:
Figure 2.3. Picture of a pile of debris in the courtyard of the intersection in Figure 2.2 at the circle with the “X” in it. (image reproduced from project by Anne Spirn’s student)
Ahah! Nothing! And Everything! At the same time. A pile of debris. What a powerful map and photograph. I thought, what if we could take “pictures” of invisible phenomena (like wind) with a special “camera” and explore the hidden dimensions of the urban natural environment systematically?
I started to wonder how you could build a “camera for the invisible” for taking pictures of these types of invisible situations, to help people re-see.
That same day I did a quick mockup. I built 4 temperature-to-color sensors. These lights show a temperature gradient from hot to cold emanating from the laptop.
Figure.2.4. Four temperature to color converter modules spread out on a table next to a hot laptop in a cold room. Red represents the hottest temperature and blue the coldest.
Then I started a 6-month project to build a Camera for the Invisible. That is a camera that lets you sense non-visible aspects of the environment with sensors/lenses and transform those non-sensory phenomena into some form of phenomena that can be sensed by a human with actuators/viewfinders.
It let you see carbon dioxide as a color, or listen to temperature as a sound, or feel brightness as a vibration.
Figure 2.6. Camera for the Invisible prototype laid out with all its lenses and viewfinders, along with a peek to the back interface with two buttons.
Read in detail about the Camera for the Invisible in my Master’s Thesis [Silver, 2008, Camera for the Invisible]
The Camera for the Invisible had “lenses” (lens-shaped sensors) and “viewfinders” (viewfinder shaped actuators) that you could mix and match.
For example, you could have a temperature lens (temperature sensor on the input) and a color viewfinder (colored LED on the output) which would give you a temperature-to-color camera setup. Or you could have a carbon dioxide lens, and a sound viewfinder, which would let you hear carbon monoxide. Or an electrical resistance lens and a tactile viewfinder, which lets you feel the resistance of a material as a vibration on your fingers.
Because synesthesia is a condition where stimulation of one sense in a person automatically triggers the stimulation of another sense (for example hearing a sound makes someone think of a color), I sometimes refer to the lens and viewfinder combination as “Synesthetic Pairs.”
The camera was made of a natural cherry wood body with holes for routing wires from the hand-soldered motherboard
Figure 2.8. Left. Cherry Wood laser cut layers of the camera body splayed out. Design lead was UROP Melodia Kao. Right. The motherboard of the camera hand soldered and CnC milled guided “by hand” on fiber backed copper.
It could be used to explore any urban natural environment to re-see the invisible aspects, such as this sewer cover’s temperature in different spots, re-seen as color in the viewfinder.
Figure 2.9. Camera for the Invisible with a temperature lens and a color viewfinder used to explore a range of temperatures on a cold day at various parts of the cover of a sewer grating.
I tried it out with several people, one of them a 15-year-old teenager.
She was able to make some discoveries (see master’s thesis for details) about shadows and clouds, her fingerprints, and the temperature and electrical conductivity of her body. But when I asked her what she would do with those discoveries in the future she said she didn’t know.
That was important. She had investigated electricity indoors, sound and light phenomena outside, resistance and skin-pattern concepts within herself, and noted seeing the world in a new way. But, in relation to action after the discovery events, there was no noticeable difference in her willingness to do something, to change the world, to make something new.
So I set out to build a new version of the Camera for the Invisible. A simpler one that encouraged people to look at things anew (re-see), AND build something out of what they discovered (re-purpose and/or re-create).
In fact, when I first started researching the Camera for the Invisible, it had consisted of simpler pairings that were more like blocks and less like a camera. In fact when I had introduced the camera concept above, I skipped some of the story that had come before. Let’s work backwards from the camera concept point in the story to see where the camera diverged from.
The camera concept came only after an initial exploration that consisted of simple A to B sensory transformative pairs. The design immediately preceding the camera looked like these “railroad blocks”:
Working backwards from the blocks simulation, I had a working Scratch software simulation of these sensor pairs (again more like blocks):
Figure 2.12. Scratch simulation of input output pairs with simulated proximity to various natural phenomena.
Again stepping backwards, this software was based on this abstract diagram, of an input/output pairing system that I drew:
Today a diagram like this is even more familiar in the marketplace of products with examples such as Little Bits in existence:
Inputs are on the left in pink, outputs are on the right in green, and you can snap the two together with magnetic connectors and have input/output pairs.
Note it is no surprise that around this time there were many input output-sensory transformative kits, and there is also a history of such thinking before this. I was working in the Cube at the Media Lab, which was a repurposed theater space that held Lifelong Kindergarten and a class called How to Make Almost Anything, both of which were hotbeds of kit ideas that had sensors paired with actuators. Lifelong Kindergarten is the group that LEGO Mindstorms and PicoCrickets came out of, both of which were commercially available microcontroller-based kits that let you very easily pair inputs and outputs with computation in between. Flow Blocks was also created here, which allowed you to very easily and magnetically snap computation blocks together and then break them apart. So this was the location where many such input/output easy-access kits were created. Furthermore, the founder of Little Bits was also working in the Cube in a group unrelated to education prior to starting Little Bits, so she would have most likely been peripherally influenced by these types of projects.
What is interesting, however, is the breakthrough I had that was a bit counterintuitive.
Simplify and Constrain the Synesthetic Input/Output Pairs
I veered away from the mix-and-match inputs/outputs model. You see, the results of my study of Camera for the Invisible was that it was great as a lens but terrible at spurring creative/constructive action. Too much time was spent on the mixing and matching. While plugging blocks and components into each other might be great for “engineering education” we run the risk of using too much valuable energy/attention on the blocks part if the goal is: to focus the participant’s attention on the everyday objects and how those can be re-made.
In an attempt to focus and preserve the valuable user attention and cognition, I decided it was necessary to simplify the mode of interaction to the point where the tool itself is boring unless multiplied on the environment/world. This simultaneously also simplifies the cognitive load of understanding the tool so more time can be spent in flow with objects the user already has a long history with in the physical world.
My final categorization scheme of tools, as inspired by Camera for the Invisible, was a scheme that positioned Instruments, People, and Environments relative to each other in typical use cases. In this analysis the camera was positioned like this:
Figure 2.15. Model showing physical relationship
of a scientific instrument when a person uses it to study and interact with the