Ways of the Hand: Taxonomy of Tinkering Practices

Back to Ways of the Hand: Tinkering in a Digital Age


Towards a classification system for tinkering practices


Originally compiled by Perry Hoberman, Anne Balsamo, Susana Bautista, Cara Wallis, and Maura Klosterman, 2008

All tinkering practices involve:
  • specific materials
  • specific workflows
  • specific contexts
  • specific platforms

Each of these components can be situated on a spectrum ranging from ‘open’ to ‘closed’:

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

Tinkering Vocabulary

  • DIY
  • Makers Culture
  • Modding
  • Appropriation
  • Remix Culture,DJ Culture,VJ Culture
  • Hacking
  • Collage
  • Improvise
  • Jury-rig
  • Jerry-built
  • Ad-hoc
  • Bricolage
  • Cobble
  • Recycle/Re-use

Tinkering cultures and subcultures include:

  • Electronics, Microcontrollers (Basic Stamp, PIC chips, Arduino)
    • There are many do-it-yourselfers who enjoy the challenges and rewards of creating objects that make use of microcontrollers, which allow for the reception of various types of sensory data to be processed by the microcontroller to then make things happen. These happenings include LED displays that light up in an array of colors, the emission of sounds of varying types and volume, and different types of motion. Microcontrollers utilize several basic programming languages that can cut across platforms. Consumer kits encourage the making of embedded systems within clothing, toys, and jewelery. Projects of these sorts require tinkering and troubleshooting by their designers as they learn to use materials like conductive thread and test the connections between the sensors, controller board, programming, bluetooth or other wireless devices and the non-conductive materials they incorporate into their projects. Consumer sites like sparkfun.com and aniomagic sell kits, give tutorials, and allow people to share photos and videos of their projects. One particular product line of microcontroller and accessories, the LilyPad Arduino, has a Flickr page devoted to photos of these creations: LilyPad Arduino. The team behind www.sparkfun.com participate in the Maker Faire organized by Make Magazine]. Germany’s Chaos Computer Club also hosts conventions and provides instructions for microcontroller-based projects, with more of an emphasis on hacking than folksy crafts.
  • Makers Culture & DIY (Make Magazine)
    • Makers Culture is a very loosely organized group of communities focusing mostly on technology, science, and craft projects with a DIY mindset and formed around the notion that making things oneself is better than using the mass-produced commodities that comprise our consumer-driven culture. Makers Culture could be thought of as a sort of anti-consumption consumption culture that also values the learning process and experience of making things. Make magazine is the first magazine devoted entirely to DIY technology projects. In its own words, “MAKE Magazine unites, inspires and informs a growing community of resourceful people who undertake amazing projects in their backyards, basements, and garages.” Make Magazine
  • Arts & Crafts (Craft Magazine, Readymade Magazine)
    • A variety of skills/hobbies that are based on using one’s hands to create with simple materials (fabric, thread, wood, paper, markers, etc.). Like Makers Culture, an underlying philosophy of crafting is that creating by one’s own hands is meaningful in and of itself and provides emotional respite against the alienating effects of mass society. See: Readymade Magazine. Here is a Draft Craft Manifesto
    • 1. People get satisfaction for being able to create/craft things because they can see themselves in the objects they make. This is not possible in purchased products.
    • 2. The things that people have made themselves have magic powers. They have hidden meanings that other people can’t see.
    • 3. The things people make they usually want to keep and update. Crafting is not against consumption. It is against throwing things away.
    • 4. People seek recognition for the things they have made. Primarily it comes from their friends and family. This manifests as an economy of gifts.
    • 5. People who believe they are producing genuinely cool things seek broader exposure for their products. This creates opportunities for alternative publishing channels.
    • 6. Work inspires work. Seeing what other people have made generates new ideas and designs.
    • 7. Essential for crafting are tools, which are accessible, portable, and easy to learn.
    • 8. Materials become important. Knowledge of what they are made of and where to get them becomes essential.
    • 9. Recipes become important. The ability to create and distribute interesting recipes becomes valuable.
    • 10. Learning techniques brings people together. This creates online and offline communities of practice.
    • 11. Craft-oriented people seek opportunities to discover interesting things and meet their makers. This creates marketplaces.
    • 12. At the bottom, crafting is a form of play.
  • Hardware and Software Hacking
    • There are many online forums and sites with instructions for people looking to alter their consumer electronics at the hardware or software level. The first step is to “unlock” devices from their built in software so that code can be re-written for users’ ends and the pleasure of design. Sites like lifehacker.com share examples of open source programs that allow users to control aspects of consumer devices and software applications in ways not provided by the manufacturers.
  • Authoring Tools for artists & other non-programmers (Processing, PD, Max/MSP/Jitter)
    • Programming languages and environments targeted at artists and non-programmers usually do so by employing a graphical programming environment (Visual Programming Language – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_programming_language) with emphasis on a particular mode of art-making. In the Case of PD (Pure Data – http://puredata.info/), the focus is on interactive computer music – this functionality was expanded to handle multimedia authoring in MAX and its commercial successor MAX/MSP. Processing, on the other hand, is designed for graphical satisfaction. Both PD and the Processing are especially relevant as open source projects (MAX/MSP is highly extensible).
  • Authoring Tools for Children (Squeak, Scratch)
    • Computer programs that easily enable users (children and adolescents) to create multimedia productions by connecting graphics, music, and text. Programs such as Scratch, which uses graphics that look like building blocks, are intended to teach young people computational, mathematical, and design skills. Through using Scratch, learners are encouraged to take ownership of their learning tasks, to share with others, and to reflect on their creations Scratch
  • Game Engines & World-Building Tools (Croquet, Panda3D, Alice)
    • These tools are usually non-commercial (open source or highly extensible). As opposed to commercial engines, environments are not predetermined, allowing designers to essentially design virtual space from scratch. An iconic example would be Panda3D, which is simply an open source game engine (complete with relevant I/O, collision, and audio components). Alice, developed at Carnegie Mellon, attempts to remove extraneous coding complexity to better teach programming. Croquet (Croquet Consortium – http://croquetconsortium.org/index.php/Main_Page) is essentially an SDK that enables networked metaverse creation (aka Second Life).
  • Game Modification, Appropriation (Garry’s Mod, Half-life, Quake, Unreal Tournament)
    • Commercial game development houses, particularly in the first person shooter genre, have taken to opening portions of their engines/code to allow user communities a chance to extend and alter game play (and thus the life of the product). Ranging from simple asset swapping to more intensive code/rule overhaul, modding in its most primal form usually consists of a level editor. As modders become more ambitious, the teams evolve into amateur game development groups that are picked over for talent by commercial development houses (similar specializations: texture creation, animation, 3D modeling, coding, level design). A good starting point is ModDB – http://www.moddb.com/
  • Game asset Ripping/Posing
    • 3D asset ripping is a burgeoning practice enabled by the release of the 3D Ripper DX software (http://www.deep-shadows.com/hax/3DRipperDX.htm). This allows gamers/3D artists to rip 3D assets from their favorite direct X video games into a 3D modeling package. Those with a fluency in 3D art pipelines can then import their favorite game characters from one game space into another. Another practice is to forego importing into another game and create pose renders and animations in a professional 3D package (3DSMAX or MAYA). A search for ragdolls (characters) on the garrysmod download site will show how prevalent this is becoming (http://garrysmod.org/downloads/?tag=ragdoll).
  • Circuit Bending (Reed Ghazala)
    • Circuit bending is a practice in which people take apart any sort of electronic device and cannibalize its circuitry to produce sounds that can be controlled in imaginative ways. Reed Ghazala literally wrote the book on circuit bending: Circuit-Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments (ExtremeTech) There was a documentary made about the Los Angeles-based circuit bending scene. Here is a 6 minute edit of the film: “What is Circuit Bending” Video. Bent Fests have taken place in several cities across the country. A good blog with circuit bending news and resources is www.getlo-fi.com
  • Electronic & DIY Music
    • Musicians who use any sort of electronic instruments or procesing devices tend to modify and customize them themselves. From the basic practice of creating an effects rack of foot pedals for an electric guitar, to programming midi-controllers that manipulate in editing and performance softwares like Ableton Live, to connecting hardware and software, home producers and performers are continually tinkering with their devices to produce, perform, and record new kinds of sounds. One example is the beat-making scene, in which producers utilize samples and loops, manipulating premade sounds through the use of the effects processes made available by hardware like the Akai MPC or software like Fruity Loops. Jason Chung or Nosaj Thing is an artist who combines programmable hardware devices to manipulate pre-recorded sounds for a live audience. Here is a video of one of his performances Nosaj Thing at The Echo, Los Angeles, CA. Daedelus is another artist known for his use of an open-platform programmable device for manipulating pre-recorded sounds, the Monome. Companies also sell kits for musicians to build their own effects processors and tone generators.
  • Open Source Hardware (RepRap, Fab@Home, MultiMachine)
    • The open source hardware movement translates the enthusiasm of hackers and open-source software programmers into the realm of physical objects. Open source hardware projects range from the use of open source based programs to run devices, to the creation of devices with no patent restrictions and instructions for tinkerers to create their own. Kits for open source projects are a growing trend according to this Wired magazine article.
  • Open Source Software (Blender, etc)
    • Open source software is enabled and enriched by the university, research, artistic, and personal projects of a community of coders. A rule of thumb with open source software is that with the release of a major commercial software package open source alternatives will soon begin to pop up. This is most evident with operating systems, but also true for more specific applications such as Blender (3D Modelling) or Delta 3D (game engine). Open source software is often integrated (Python, an open source programming language, is a common enabler), especially in university and research settings.
  • Video & Audio Remix Culture (YouTube)
  • Participatory Artists’ Culture
    • Learningtoloveyoumore.com (<http://learningtoloveyoumore.com>) “is both a website and a series of non-web presentations comprised of work made by the general public in response to assignments given by artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher. Yuri Ono designs and manages the website. Participants accept an assignment, complete it by following the simple but specific instructions, send in the required report (photograph, text, video, etc), and see their work posted online. Like a recipe, meditation practice, or familiar song, the prescriptive nature of these assignments is intended to guide people towards their own experience. Since the site is also an ever-changing series of exhibitions, screenings and radio broadcasts presented all over the world, participant’s documentation is also their submission for possible inclusion in one of these presentations. Past presentations have taken place at venues that include The Whitney Museum, Rhodes College in Memphis, TN, Aurora Picture Show in Houston, TX, The Seattle Art Museum, and the Wattis Institute in San Francisco”
    • Art Mobs (<http://mod.blogs.com/art_mobs/>) is an ongoing project for Organizational Communication students in the Department of Communication Arts at Marymount Manhattan College; their mission is to explore the intersection of communication, art, and mobile technology. They create unofficial audio guides for MoMA, inviting the public to do the same. Podcasting has democratized the experience of touring museums, offering a way for anyone to “curate.” The project is part of what Lawrence Lessig calls “Remix Culture.” They also collaborated with the NYC-based digital arts group YellowArrow to host a gallery event on Marymount’s campus in Manhattan, designing a messaging system for mobile phones that allowed visitors to send and receive SMS text messages about works of art on display in the gallery.
  • Creative Construction Toolkits (Lego, Lego Mindstorms, Vex, PicoCricket)
    • These are invention kits meant to stimulate creativity, inspire the imagination, and teach kids about design. Tinkertoys and Legos were two of the earliest and most popular creative construction sets. More recent kits such as Lego Mindstorms and PicoCrickets combine programmable elements such as circuits, sensors, and motors with Lego bricks and other items. PicoCricket
  • Special-Interest Creative Communities (HDR & Stereo3D imaging on Flickr)
    • Flickr (<http://www.flickr.com>) is an image and video hosting website, web services suite, and online community platform. In addition to sharing personal photographs, it is widely used by bloggers as a photo repository. Its popularity has been fueled by its organization tools, which allow photos to be tagged and browsed by folksonomic means.
    • YouTube (<http://www.youtube.com>) is a video sharing website where users can upload, view and share video clips. Adobe Flash Video technology allows for a wide variety of user-generated video content, including movie clips, TV clips and music videos, as well as amateur content such as videoblogging and short original videos.
    • Digg (<http://www.digg.com>) is a website for people to discover and share content from anywhere on the Internet, by submitting links and stories, and voting and commenting on submitted links and stories. Voting stories up and down is the site’s cornerstone function, respectively called digging and burying. Many stories get submitted every day, but only the most dugg stories appear on the front page.
    • Design Float (<http://www.designfloat.com>) is a social media site dedicated to the design industry.
    • The Outer Post (<http://www.theouterpost.com>) is an indie networking site for artists, musicians, writers, and fashionistas. You can add a portfolio to show off your videos, music, writing or photos, and create a playlist for site visitors to listen to when they come across your profile. There are separate pages for premium content representing four of their main art categories, including music, art, fashion and culture. They also accepts written submissions from users for these premium content sections to be reviewed by its editorial staff.
    • VIRB (<http://www.virb.com/>) is a social community that breaks through the constraints of social networking and brings everything (music, movies, photos, blogging, and design) together in an easy to use package. Virb is a new product from Unborn Media, the people behind popular music networking service PureVolume. VirbTunes is an Audioscrobbler like iTunes plugin that pulls information like your most frequently played songs, artists, and more, and displays that information on your Virb profile for everyone to see.
    • DeviantArt (<http://www.deviantart.com/#>) is an international online community for artists launched in 2000, including photography, digital art, traditional art, literature, Flash, filmmaking and skins for applications. The site has downloadable resources such as tutorials and stock photography. DeviantArt was loosely inspired by projects like Winamp facelift, customize.org, deskmod.com, screenphuck.com and skinz.org; all application skin based websites. The website has several forums and a shoutbox, user pages, a gallery, favorites, a watch list called DeviantWatch, message center, news articles, AdCast, Art Shop, RSS feeds, and Chat.
    • Estitica Design Forum (<http://www.estetica-design-forum.com/>) is a social network and forum for graphic designers and web designers with social bookmarking, voting for designers, blog posts, RSS, and posting of photos and videos.
    • Sabet TV (<http://www.sabet.tv/>) is a social network for artists from around the world. It’s a place to share your work and life with other like minded artists, designers and filmmakers. It was created by the founder of mojizu.com, Ali Sabet, out of Irvine, CA.
    • Myartspace (<http://www.myartspace.com/>) is an online social network for emerging and established artists with free membership. Artists can organize work into groupings (portfolios) and as galleries (collections of portfolios), and can control presentation of the gallery, adding voice, audio narration, and video. Communication tools include messaging between users, ratings of artists and paintings by the community, reviews and commentary by the community and each member has their own blog (one of the largest collections of online interviews with emerging artists in the world). Daily news on the arts, the global directory has artists, galleries, museums, and other resources, and the classified section is a place to exchange goods and service.
    • Artlog (<http://www.artlog.com/>) is the place for artists to connect, share work and discover innovative new art & design. Artlog is for art makers, insiders, organizations and art lovers. There are no upload limits and it’s free. Find and follow artists and art works; explore exhibitions, openings, parties and festivals; the latest news; access content including original writing, video, podcasts; communicate, collaborate and network; meet new people at artlog member events; follow and track other users’ artlogs; build a professional artist portfolio website with a custom domain name. Artlog Jobs is a service to find jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities.
  • Paper Prototyping
    • Paper prototyping is a variant of usability testing for Web sites, Web applications and conventional software often involving two people in the performance of realistic tasks. First, the tasks to be accomplished are chosen. Then screen shots and/or hand-sketched drafts of the windows, menus, dialog boxes, pages, popup messages, etc. that are needed to perform those tasks are taken. Then one person interacts with a paper version of an interface, which is controlled by another person who is the “computer” and does not explain how the interface is supposed to work. Other members of the development team observe and take notes. The advantages of paper prototyping are that it is a fast way to mock up an interface and refine it before implementing it. Paper Prototyping
  • Artistic Reappropriation
    • Remix Art (In Second Life) In 2006, Creative Commons presented a Remix Art event inspired by the Free Culture movement, in Second Life. Artists were encouraged to submit remixes based on the images from SharingisDaring.org and Free Culture@NYU, according to the appropriate CC licenses.
    • MoMA’s Red Studio (<http://redstudio.moma.org/>) is a teen website developed by MoMA in collaboration with high school students. REMIX: an interactive collage inspires users to create art using techniques such as collage and repetition. Drawing on some of the strategies employed by the artist Shahzia Sikander, it provides a palette of photographs, simple shapes, lines, and sizing tools that let you recreate new images out of existing ones.
  • Self-Help (self-tinkering :-)
    • People are being encouraged to play active roles in their health and well-being, rather than relying upon experts or others to solve their problems.
  • User Groups
    • User groups (also users groups or user’s groups) are clubs focused on the use of a particular technology, usually computer-related. They started in the early days of mainframe computers as a way to share knowledge and useful software, usually written by end users independently of the factory-supplied programming efforts. Before the World Wide Web, obtaining technical assistance with computers was often difficult, while computer clubs provided free technical support. Groups may be organized around a particular brand of current hardware (IBM, Macintosh), current software and operating systems (Linux, Microsoft Windows, Clipper), or sometimes dedicated to obsolete systems or historical computers (Apple II, PDP-11, Osborne). SHARE, a user group originated by aerospace industry corporate users of IBM mainframe computers, was founded in 1955 and is the oldest computer user group still active. The groups have members, but also offer information and services to the general public. Most have activities such as public lectures, newsletters, software archive, library of media or tools, an online presence, swap meets, technical support, and social events. Wikipedia has a list of user groups characterized by interest with links <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_users%27_groups>, and another aggregate source is the User Group Network <http://www.user-groups.net/>.
  • Artist-Run and Independent Galleries and Spaces
    • Machine Project <http://www.machineproject.com> is best described by their mission statement: As our society and culture grows increasingly reliant on technology, the specific underlying technologies grow ever more complicated. Hands-on “how to” knowledge feels increasingly remote and arcane, and many artists feel forced to rely on whatever tools or services they can afford to purchase. In low-income communities, this means that technology-based culture often seems completely out of reach of the individual artist. We provide educational resources to artists working with technology; to educate and collaborate with artists to produce site-specific, non-commercial work; and to promote conversations between artists, scientists, poets, technicians, performers and the communities of Los Angeles as a whole. These three aims are closely related. With our wide array of cultural programming, we demonstrate the creative possibilities of technology to open up interdisciplinary conversations between disparate knowledge communities. With our presentations and lectures, we offer rarified knowledge in a friendly, human manner, and we foster a greater understanding between art and science. And at the most practical level, we offer hands-on training in some of the skills presented in our exhibits and lectures, putting knowledge tools into the hands of our community and giving them the ability to create work of their own.
    • Dorkbot <http://www.dorkbot.org> – is a group of affiliated organizations worldwide that sponsor grassroots meetings of artists, engineers, designers, scientists, inventors, and anyone else working under the topic of electronic art, encouraging the free exchange of ideas. Their motto is “people doing strange things with electricity.” The purpose of dorkbot meetings is to nurture a local electronic arts community and to encourage emerging, and established, artists to present new works for informal peer review. While many of the groups hold their meetings at universities and students are encouraged to attend, they are not restricted to the academic community.
    • Openair
  • Demoscene
    • A computer art subculture (originating in the hacking world from software cracker signatures) that produces non-interactive, code-driven audiovisual ‘shorts’ with one caveat: they must run in real-time on a computer. Not only does this require audio and video artistry, but the expertise to render and execute a presentation within extreme file-size constraints. A deliverable in a demo-scene competition is usually an executable, which runs the entry in real time rather than as a pre-rendered multimedia file. As a result, the demo-scene is a space for innovation in computer art and video game graphics – especially procedural. Demoscene
  • Personal Manufacturing (ponoko, cafepress.com)
    • Personal Manufacturing rests on the ability for anyone to create, manufacture, and distribute their own goods, or to connect with others to design, sell, or buy individually designed and produced goods. On the one hand, personal manufacturing enables a return to a pre-massification era, but it also takes advantage of personal computers, relatively inexpensive hardware and software, and the social networking capabilities of Web 2.0 to enable the production of original, individualized products. See Ponoko as an example of a personal manufacturing community: Ponoko
Where are we drawing the line between tinkering practices and everything else?

Tinkering (as we are defining it) includes at least one or more of the following:

  • strategies of improvisation and iteration
  • making things out of whatever is at hand
  • making things out of parts that push beyond the boundaries of their original contexts
  • making things out of a combination of heterogenous parts and components
  • making things out of both raw and finished materials
  • combining the industrial and the handmade
  • augmenting, modifying and repurposing objects and media
  • strategies of collage, appropriation and montage
  • strategies of open-endedness, potential for revision, improvement, alteration
  • a tendency toward social and communal practices; development of, and dependence on, porous and ad-hoc communities
  • customization and personalization of consumer and industrial products

Tinkering can be defined as the practice of amateurs (vs professionals) or as hobbies (vs professions) but…

…we are not emphasizing these distinctions because we don’t want to exclude either.

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    So exactly what does this mean for the industry? Has the end lastly come and the whole market has now been shot to you know exactly what as the traditional tattoo artist would mention? Or is this simply all terrific for business and we should simply pocket the cash and run to the bank and not fret about the artistic value of the piece or perhaps if the customer should truly be getting a tattoo done or not?

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