Undo It Yourself (U.i.Y.)

disThere is a TV show called (in the US) Junkyard Wars. The premise of the show is simple enough: two teams meet in a junkyard and are assigned to build something: a trebuchet, a crane, or some other device. I think we can assume that the collection of stuff is, let us say, “semi-random.” I don’t know whether they start with a real junkyard and just make sure to seed it with useful bits, or they start with useful bits and cover it in random crap, or what, but I just cannot assume that they do this in a real, random scrapyard. The challenge is to make the most of the stuff at hand, and to create something that will work for the purposes of the challenge.

I was thinking about this during the Digital Medial and Learning conference in Chicago this week, and especially during the session titled Make, Do, Engage. The whole conference has a double set of themes. The official theme has to do with civic culture, and my favorite sessions this year have talked about new forms of activism and ways of encouraging social justice. But there is also a focus (including a pre-conference) on making stuff. Panelists spoke about ways students subvert game construction, the idea of jugaad, and thoughts about hacking-based media literacies. There seemed to be an interweaving here between building “stuff” (technology) and building government, and learning. This nexus (learning, politics, and making) was very present at the conference, and hits directly on my specific intersection of interests, so it has been an especially engaging conference for me this year.

In particular, the question is how to lead people to be more willing to engage in hacking, and how to create environments and ecosystems that encourage hacking of the environment. Rafi Santo talked a bit about the “emergence” of the hashtag as an example of Twitter’s relative hackability when compared with Facebook. (The evolution of features of Twitter is something I write about in a short chapter in the upcoming volume Twitter and Society.) Chris Hoadley also talked about the absence of any sort of state support for physical infrastructure led people to have to engage in their own hacks. This recalled for me a point made by Ethan Zuckerman about Occupy Sandy as being an interesting example of collective action that had a very real impact.

At one point Ingrid Erickson mentioned that she had been talking with Rafi about “do it together” technologies–making the hacking process more social. But part of me is much more interested in infrastructure for creativity–forcing people to work together. No one would wish Sandy on any group, but that particular pressure, and the vacuum of institutional support, led to a Temporary Autonomous Government of sorts that stepped in and did stuff because it needed to be done. I also recalled danah boyd mentioning earlier something that anyone who has ever taught in a grad program knows full well: placing a group in a difficult or impossible situation is a good way to quickly build an esprit de corps and bring together those who would otherwise not necessarily choose to collaborate. With all of these ideas mixing around, I wonder if we need a new aesthetic of “undoing it yourself.”

Yes, I suppose that could be what jailbreaking a phone is about, or you might associate this with frame-breaking or other forms of sabotage. But I am thinking of something a bit more pre-constructive.

I went to a lot of schools as a kid; more than one built on one or another piece of the Montessori model. At one, there was a pile of wood, a hammer, and some nails. It wasn’t in a classroom, as I recall, it was down at the end of a hall. If I asked, they would let me go mess with it. It was dangerous: I managed to hammer my thumb with some consistency. And I would be very surprised if they had an outcome in mind; or even if I did. I think I made a model boat. I don’t think anyone would have guessed it was a model boat unless I had told them.

In a more structured setting, piles of Lego bricks might want to look like what is on the cover of the box. And I am sure there are kids who manage–at least once–to achieve the vehicles or castles shown there. But that’s not why you play with Lego. Some part of me really rebels against the new Lego world, with the huge proliferations of specialized pieces. But the truth is that as a kid the specialized pieces were the interesting bits, not the bare blocks. The core 8×2 were there almost as a glue to keep the fun bits together.

Especially in the postmodern world we celebrate the bricoleur, we recognize hybridized work and kludges as interesting and useful, but far less thought is put into where that stuff comes from. Disassembly precedes assembly. I’m interested in what it means to be an effective disassembler, to unmake environments. There is space for scaffolding only once you’ve actually torn down the walls.

I think we need an Undo-it-Yourself movement. People who individually loosen bolts and disconnect wires. Who destroy mindfully. Those who leave junk in your way, knowing that you might see yourself in it. Our world is ripe for decomposition. New ideas about how we shape our built environment and our society are not born out of the ashes of the past, but out of the bits and pieces that are no longer attached the way the Designer intended.

I am not advocating chaos. I’m not suggesting that we should start an evil organization that turns every screw we encounter twice anti-clockwise. Perhaps what I am suggesting is something somewhere between the kit and the junkyard. Something with possibilities we know and we don’t know. Disassemblies of things for playing with.

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