Killer robots

Yesterday I taught a shortcourse in the HUMlab on the arduino microcontroller. Pretty basic stuff in one sense: how to set up the development environment, create simple electric circuits, write some code. That was the first part of the 3 hour course. In the second part, the participants experimented with using small vibrating motors and toothbrushes to make a controllable drivetrain connected to the arduino. We finished pretty much on time, with each group having constructed a working (more or less) robot. The results are on display in the lab.

I was really impressed by the work of the participants. They came from a variety of disciplines, from the art school, from design, and from engineering departments, all linked together by a common interest in making things that blended computational and physical resources. The outcome of each group was both functionally and aesthetically distinct and reinforced for me the importance of making as part of learning.

I was struck at the time by both the complexity of these kinds of tasks and how much more simple it is these days to experiment with physical computing. While there are a number of other microcontroller-based rapid prototyping systems, I think the arduino really hits the right balance of do-it-yourself and do-it-for-you. It doesn’t use custom connectors or plugs, just header pins that you can stick a solid core wire into, or use a pin connector and ribbon cable. It’s got an SPI bus and software libraries that make it straight-forward to interface it with all sorts of electronic components from accelerometers to eeproms to ultrasonic distance sensors. The development environment (which runs on macs, pcs, and Linux boxen) makes it easy to write and compile code and burn it to the device. Best of all its got an ever-increasing number of enthusiasts doing all sorts of things with it – and since it is open source hardware and software most of the results are available online.

But I was even more struck by how important it is for humanities and social science scholars whose work addresses aspects of the digital to engage with these technologies, to make things, to play. At the same time, I was reminded of how easy it is to become “captured” by the technological, to end up focusing on its novelty, and to let those aspects drive your work. In the end, being an artist, an engineer, or a designer is a different task from being a scholar. This is not to say that people can’t be both or that the lines between these roles are not blurry and indistinct. It’s just that there is something specific involved in studying digital technologies and society when the goal is not only to make objects (which are expected to speak for themselves) or to “improve” technologies (make them easier to use, more culturally appropriate, etc.). Personally, I think being a scholar has to do with maintaining a critical social perspective – meaning an orientation towards critique directed towards positive transformation of society rather than just understanding or explaining how things are.

I’m going to continue to work on how we can do this balancing act. Oh, and keep making things!