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Dale Dougherty: Hacking the Physical World

If you can "mod software," you can mod the real world

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 1, 2013

Dale Dougherty
Dale Dougherty

If you can "mod software," you can mod the real world.

That thinking lead O'Reilly Media vice president Dale Dougherty to found Make magazine. He calls it "a Popular Mechanics for the digital age, rather than the mechanical age." Within its pages, you can find a way to teach yourself how to build your own solar-powered torch, or a ukulele out of a cake tin. For Dougherty, it's about reminding people that they can do it themselves. If they don't know how, they can learn. Dougherty himself came from an IT background. Part of the team behind Global Network Navigator, the world's first commercial website, he's commonly credited with creating the term "Web 2.0." Now he has co-founded the Maker Education Initiative. The concept is simple: to get kids interested in the same kind of hands-on projects that have spurred the entire "maker movement." Most importantly for Dougherty, it's about instilling a lifetime love of learning and giving people the passion to tinker. He said, "I've heard some people refer to the term 'creative confidence,' and I think that's what we're trying to do."

Austin Chronicle: What was the original idea behind Make?

Dale Dougherty: An essential idea for me was that we would hack the physical world the same way we would hack a software environment. Software gives us a way to change things easily, to create variations. We've got generations growing up with that skill set, and they look at the physical world around them – their car, their home – and they think, "Can I modify that? I don't like the way it works." We're taking a mindset developed for software and applying it to other things. I just saw that ... this idea of changing things was kind of what hobbyists do when they modify an RC car.

The secondary part of that is that we play with technology. It's something we do in our spare time, and it's not just playing at a computer. It's increasingly robots and planes and other things. Increasingly, a generation dominated by technology is using it for fun, and they're tinkerers and hackers and make things that other people interact with.

AC: There's a feeling that the education system, with its emphasis on college degrees, has become separated from the industrial tradition, and the skills to make something. Many people grew up around factories, absorbing a lot of mechanical know-how.

DD: You visit cities like Detroit, and you get a real feeling that it's part of their legacy. There're families that grew up in factories and around machines, and then you go to rural communities where they grew up on farms and had the same familiarity with machinery. When they went to school, they would impart some book knowledge, but they married it to a practical base of life skills that were pretty valuable to have.

I think education has almost been stripped down to what we can teach in a textbook. Two points of view on that. One is that we have to realize that education is more than just what we learn in school. It's what we learn outside of school, in our community, and that kind of tinkering that often happens in those spaces. And secondly, learning is not about how much information you can absorb. I like to think it's more about what you can do. So it's about engaging kids in the demonstration and exploration and discovery of what they can do, like, "Read this, and tell me what it means." The odd thing is that, if we go back a hundred years and look at John Dewey and other educational philosophers talking about this, "learn by doing" was the mantra. Even in the Seventies, there are constructivists out of MIT and [developmental psychologist] Jean Piaget saying, "We make knowledge, we create what we know. It isn't just something that we absorb." I think we've moved away from that, and it's "learn by repeating," which is the opposite of that.

AC: Make and all its offshoots, like Maker Faire, depend on retaining intellectual curiosity. Not just saying, "I have to achieve task X," but being able to say, "Hey, that's an interesting thing." A lot of educators are concerned that we're beating that curiosity out of adults when they're kids.

DD: If you look at our school system, the biggest problem is that there are so many disengaged kids. They're just bored. I don't care if you elevate standards or raise teacher training, if you can't engage kids and move them from boredom to being engaged, you've lost them. The big worry is what you said, that you've not only affected them immediately, but you've had a lasting impact on their own view of how they learn and what they can learn. You've diminished the love of learning to the point where they don't want to engage at all. Part of this whole DIY thing we've got going on here, and what's fun about it, is that you get to learn something new and prove to yourself that you can do something that you didn't maybe even think was possible. That's transferable across fields and across areas of knowledge. How do you build kids up to support them so they can take that risk and create something new? I think that's one of the vital skill sets that we're trying to incorporate here, and it gets to the point that this is more about a mindset than mechanical aptitude or ability to work with their hands. I don't care whether kids are digital makers or physical makers. It's putting them in the center of this and saying, "What can you do?" That's the heart of the message.

Dale Dougherty: Hacking the Physical World

AC: It used to be essential that a programmer had to know the hardware just to keep the system up, but now there's an element of tech culture that's sealed boxes. You personally represent how people can move from computing back into physical engineering and then span the two cultures.

DD: What was formative for me was that I really could learn on my own. That I didn't need school, that if I could find books, I could find resources to learn something. That can be as practical as cooking, but it can also be history. I didn't need to be told how to learn – I could learn. And for me, the Internet was this wonderful library. When I first started building stuff in the early Nineties, it was, "Gosh, there're all these amazing resources out there, and they're alive and available." I really saw the Internet as a driver for DIY. You can access these resources directly and learn what you needed to find. What it added that was very powerful was the notion of communities online. You could not only find written materials online, you could access the people who were associated with them. If you had a question, or you wanted to understand an area, you could follow people who knew a lot about that area, and they were very accessible and open. To me, Make was just another body of knowledge tied to a community.

The early Web was pioneered by liberal arts majors that had the enthusiasm to build sites. The early personal computer industry was built by enthusiasts who wanted to build their own computer. Over time, I think that's what I'm looking for – that enthusiasm that gets us to do things, and gets us to spend a lot of time doing things. We're not always driven by, "Is this a business?" or "Am I going to get a degree out of this?" This is stuff we love doing, and that's the definition of an amateur – to love something, and to do it for that reason. That's a pretty special attitude, almost a life view, almost a worldview, that I wanted to embrace.

AC: Make itself epitomizes that sense of passion, but it seems a little contradictory that you could create a quarterly print publication aimed at online hacker culture.

DD: It is kind of counter to that, but in other ways, it was also part of the message we were trying to get across that physical things matter. I wanted to make a magazine that was collectible, that wasn't just discarded. I walk in to visit makers, and I see the bookshelf and I know that I've achieved that goal. That's what National Geographic was, and the form factor for Make is Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. It may not stay with that forever, but it was a call to the role those magazines played in culture.

I was just reading a biography of Robert Noyce, the founder of Intel. He read in Popular Science when he was 13 about a box kite that could lift a human off the ground. He and his friends went out and built it and realized they couldn't get off the ground just by running it along. So they climbed up a barn and jumped off and nearly hurt themselves. That didn't work well enough, so they tried to drag it behind a car. It's just that kind of crazy impulse that I think is human nature. We want to try something out and experiment, and we find out a whole heck of a lot by the process of doing that.

AC: This all goes to the concept of failure and its role in learning and education. When an engineer is designing something, it's not pass or fail, it's "Does it work yet?" And then it's "Does it work in the most efficient and effective way?" and "Does it do everything I wanted it to do?" Pass/fail goes out the window, and it's more about, well, "Whether it worked or not, what did I learn?"

DD: It's the process that we really want to engage kids in, and not just give them the answer. We can make them successful by asking questions that we already know the answers to, but if we give them a real problem where they can be wrong and even get frustrated, then we're teaching them a process. They can fail at something but figure out that's not the end state. You can iterate through this stuff, and I think that applies to a writer, it applies to science, it applies to almost anything. You try things, and you get more aware of what you're doing through that effort. You overcome obstacles and frustrations to complete a project.

AC: So how does the Maker Education Initiative fit into all of this?

DD: We've seen, through Maker Faires, kids into making, and one of our chief goals is asking, "Where does this happen in the community, and where could it happen?" If you're a kid and you get inspired to make something, if you have the right setting at home, like a parent who has a garage, maybe you're able to do it at home. But a lot of kids won't have that, so where can they find to do it? Broadly, we're beginning to see these makerspaces in the community develop. Those are mainly aimed at adults who say, "OK, we're going to rent this space and set up this club and get together and teach workshops and do projects." But kids can't set that up for themselves, so we're thinking broadly about where we can create these spaces in the community. We're seeing them in museums and libraries, and I think the hardest place and most important place is to get them into schools, because they'll reach more people.

Like technology itself, it does tend to reach the affluent first, and so we have a disparity in our communities about who has access. But it's not just access, it's who has control of technology. That's what Make is trying to do: If a kid grows up and says, "I can make this thing and I can make it work," they'll have a sense that all this technology is just tools for what they want to accomplish. If you don't have that, you feel almost victimized, that this stuff is determining your fate and you don't have a way to express yourself. So I really think it's important for our nonprofit to concentrate on nonprofits that will be behind adopting making. This might be through Boys & Girls Clubs, or it might be through schools, but the goal of the nonprofit is to work with other youth-serving organizations and develop their capacity to engage kids as makers.


Dale Dougherty's "Tinker Tailor Solder Ply: Why Makers Rule in EDU" is at 10:30am, Wed­nes­day, March 6, in Ballroom G of the Austin Con­ven­tion Center.

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