New Project :: Ways of the Hand – Tinkering in a Digital Age

Ways of the Hand, a project by Anne Balsamo 2013


This project explores the notion of “tinkering as a 21st century literacy.”   Tinkering involves strategies of improvisation and iteration.  As a practice of the technological imagination, it pushes the boundaries of original contexts.  It creates hybrids from heterogeneous parts and components.  It incorporates media strategies of collage, appropriation, and montage.  It encourages open-ended exploration of possibilities.  It develops porous and ad-hoc communities.  It is a key reproductive practice of contemporary culture.

The Ways of the Hand project includes 14 video postcards from makers and tinkerers who participated in Maker Faire, 2009 in San Mateo, CA.  I had the opportunity to ask them about their motivations and aspirations for their making practices.

Ways of the Hand:  Introduction by Anne Balsamo

Ways of the Hand:  Interview with Dale Doughtery, founder of Make Magazine

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Carl Pisaturo

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Peter Weijmarshausen

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Wendell Oske

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Wendy Ju

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Roger Sonntag

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Mark Alexander

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Stephanie Vincent

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Phil Jergenson

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Nemo Gould

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Michael St. Clair

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Mike Petrich

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Geever Tully

Additional videos on the importance of Tinkering in a Digital Age, produced at the Convening on Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age, organized and facilitated by Anne Balsamo (then at USC) that was held at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford University, Oct 23-25, 2008, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

John Seely Brown: Scientist, Speaker, Writer, Teacher, Former Chief Science Officer for the Xerox Corporation discusses the notion of the Open Architectural Studio model of learning.

Mike Petrich: Co-Director of The Learning Studio at the Exploratorium, SF, CA, advocates for tinkering as a part of every public school curriculum.

Allison Clark: Founder of the Hip Hop Information Technology Tour that is designed to encourage students to tinker with technology in unconventional ways.

Eric Siegel:  Director of Exhibits at the New York Hall of Science talks about the importance of people and especially peers in cultivating creativity and imagination among museum visitors.

Jaime Cortez: Artist/performer/teacher in Bay Area California identifies roadblocks to creativity in traditional school settings.

Beginning with the Summit on Tinkering held at the Carnegie Foundation in 2008, and continuing through the investigation and interviews with makers and tinkerers at Maker Faire in 2009, I was interested in documenting the wide range of tinkering and making practices in contemporary US culture.  A report on this research manifested as a taxonomy of tinkering practices that encompasses diverse strategies, structure and logics of tinkering.  Through talking with Makers and tinkerers of all ages and backgrounds, we learned that tinkering involves four key components, that can be “open” or “closed”:

  • Materials
  • open: raw, found, basic, low-level, primary, elements
  • closed: kit, preassembled, higher-level, systems
  • Workflows
  • open: unscripted, exploratory, experimental, iterative processes, self-determined
  • closed: scripted, step-by-step instructions, tutorial, start-to-finish
  • Contexts
  • open: multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, hybrid, self-motivated
  • closed: well-established culture or subculture, work-for-hire, made-to-order
  • Platforms
  • open: open source, cross-platform,multi-platform, multi-system
  • closed: closed-platform, commercial, restrictive licensing & use

And while it is difficult to imagine a time when TINKERING was considered a positive attribute of an active imagination, in fact, there was a time in US history when tinkering was actively discouraged.  In her book, Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile (Penn UP, 2005: 137), Kathleen Franz reproduces this “Anti-Tinkering Manifesto” circulated in 1934 by industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague about the dangers of tinkering with the beauty of the automobile.


An Anti-Tinkering Manifesto

Appropriated from Walter Dorwin Teague

(Industrial Designer writing in 1934)


The days of aftermarket accessories and tinkering ended with the rise of professionals in the 1920s.  In order to redesign a product, one has to understand the universal principles of good design. 

For example, good automobile design constitutes a principle of fitness that expresses the perfect adaptation of means to an end.  The laws of fitness are unchangeable and invariable—principles that can be studied and learned.  Understanding these principles distinguishes professionals from amateurs.

Any organism must be conceived as a unity, one theme, one purpose, must dominate it; all its elements must be integrated as closely as possible so that it looks as if it had been poured in a single mold.

Tinkering destroys unity.

Excerpted from:  Kathleen Franz, Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile (Penn UP, 2005: 137)

The unfolding text project is called:  Ways of the HAnd:  How We Make Culture through Tinkering, Hacking & Upcycling.

Chapter 1:  DIY as an Emergent Cultural Formation

Chapter N:  A Taxonomy of Tinkering

Bibliography on Tinkering, The Hand, and Learning


  1. Hi Anne

    I appreciate the idea of “four key components, that can be “open” or “closed””. This provides useful framework for considering the degree to which our teaching and learning artefacts, activities and environments are “open”. I am reminded of Lawrence Lessig’s discussion of the three layers of the Internet (code layer, the content layer, and the physical layer), each of which can be publicly or privately owned and controlled. The interviews are insightful (although the link to your introduction no longer works).


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