Blog Post

P3 Interactive workshop: Anne Balsamo and tinkering in the digital age.




Anne Balsamo will be one of speakers in the upcoming P3 workshop Peer-to-Peer Pedagogy Workshop on September 9 at Duke University. Here is an interview we pursued online. This text has also been published on the P3 WIKI, and in my personal blog. Feel free to join the conversation on tinkering spaces and its relevance to peer-to-peer pedagogy by posting on any of the 3 venues.




Ana Boa-Ventura: Do you think that is a role to be played by physical tinkering in digital tinkering?  Can digital tinkering play a part in physical tinkering? How does tinkering relate to creativity and collaboration?


Anne Balsamo: 

 Much of the current work on new learning theory focuses almost exclusively on the learning that happens through the forging of connections among sources of digital information.  These connections might take the form of DIY videos, remix digital media, or digital works of art (music, graphic, visual, or simulation).  While useful as a point of departure, current discussions about learning in a digital age might be usefully expanded through a consideration of the interactions between the body and the devices that enable the circulation of digital information, the relationship of the learners body tophysical materialstools, and the matter of the world. 

 My current work seeks to engage and expand the discourse on learning in a digital age by investigating the use of objects, tools, and toys as thinking devices that enable learning.  As many scholars understand quite clearly: even the most cursory review of the history of science would suggest that an important part of the learning process involves opportunities to tinker with evocative objects and materials.  Tinkering is defined as an exploratory experimentation with material objects, tools, devices, and malleable materials (digital as well as physical).  Sherry Turkle's recent edited collection provides an account of how evocative objects become a provocation of thought (Turkle, 2007).  While her privileged object is the computer, other contributors to the volume focus on more mundane objects such as key chains, photographs and other daily ephemera.  More theoretically developed accounts of the role that objects play in meaning making and learning come from noted researchers in science technology studies such as Lucy Suchmans work on Affiliative Objects (Suchman, 2007) or in engineering design research such as Louis Bucciarelliss work on the role of objects in design process (Bucciarelli, 1994). 

The new projectcalled Ways of the Hand--centers on the notion of tinkering in a digital age as it manifests in the development of new subcultural formations (DIY and Maker Culture), new creative practices (of prototyping, of tool use), new social structures (of the identity of the amateur versus the professional), new forms of knowledge (of materials, of abstractions), and new expressive media (gizmos as new extensions of man.   By focusing on the role of the body when tinkering with objects and materials, this project extends the notion of tinkering as a legitimate a learning platform, not in opposition to the establishment of digital learning platforms, but as a complement to the use of digital learning materials made available through new digital media and learning efforts such as the open educational resource movement (OER).

A. B.V.: In the set of videos that resulted from the meeting that you organized in 2008 entitled Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital AgeJohn Seely Brown brings up the idea of the architectural studio as an example of a setting where critique is the norm, not the exception. How is this idea of publicizing any work in progress core to tinkering? Can you give us some examples of platforms for digital tinkering that introduce new modes of critique?

 A. B.:

The architecture studio is an established structure for the orchestration of learning that involves master makers and apprentice makers.  What is standard in the architecture studio is the mixed nature of the learning scene.  It is both material and digital.  Students learn to design using new digital tools (Maya, Processing); and they continue to learn how to use traditional methods of form-making:  creating structures out of foam core, balsa wood, and other lightweight materials.  What is at the heart of the architectural studio is the process of physical making.  Sometimes, and increasingly more often, the making is inspired by digital applications and may be mediated through digital prototyping tools (3D printers, for example).  But the focus on the skill and craft of making is ever present.  The studio frames and makes possible the visualization of the process of making.  Things-in-formation are left in-progress; people can see these half-done pieces...they literally can see the thinking in action.  The studio as a learning space foregrounds the process of making, not the end result.  It is the process of thinking through materials that is on display in a studio.  I am interested in the relationship between making, tinkering, and the way in which the body becomes engaged in the process of manifesting an idea, a shape, a form, or an expression.

A. B.V.: Eric Siegel has stated that his experience as Director and Chief Content Officer of the New York Hall of Science suggests that there may be a socio-economic aspect to tinkering - with the less educated craving for more human direction, and the more educated feeling more comfortable with open-ended activities.  

 Thinking back to the cultural dimensions, do you think there could be a base for a cultural aspect in tinkering?  I am thinking of the cultural group to which Hofstede assigns the lowest score in Individualism:  the Chinese. Given that loyalty is key in a collectivist society such as the Chinese, could this explain some of the current macro snapshot of global Economy?

A. B.:

 I would not want to speculate on the socio-economic aspect of tinkering without having done the empirical research to determine the frequency with which different groups of people (of different demographic characteristics: age, income, level of education, geographic location) engage in different tinkering practices.  For many people around the globe, tinkering (and recycling and reusing and repairing) is a way of life, not a hobby.  For others who enjoy the concept of leisure time, the notion of tinkering names a different set of practices.  I think there is a cultural base to conceptions of tinkering, but it is not tied to essentialist definitions of ethnic, racialized, or national identities.  Rather I would look (and plan to investigate) how a certain set of practices (of using ones hands to do certain things) becomes coded in a way that for some is called tinkering and for others a way of life.




Being a Portuguese in the US, I am acutely aware of the impact that culture has on the way we see your world. Like you, Anne, I prefer not to speculate. However, I was struck by Eric Siegel's observations. 

I found very interesting your mention of a 'way of life' as opposed to tinkering.

On this topic, here is some information on MAKER FAIRE APRICA 2010, a "celebration of African ingenuity, innovation and invention", which just took place at the University of Nairobi. The official site includes a section for matching your skills with those of one of the *makers* and is worth a visitThe projects are all about tinkering... or maybe they are 'ways of life'? (just trying to poke others out there;)...) and they involve designers, artists and engineers.


(I pastes this post here as it really belongs to this thread:)).

In view of the upcoming P3 workshop and Anne Balsamo's ideas on tinkering spaces, I asked Dustin Younse, the new Overlord of Dorkbot Austin, to say a few words about this community, their practice and the importance that tinkering has for the many Dorkbot groups around the world. He describes as a 'science fair for adults'. Here is the video (thank you Dustin!). It's in vimeo so feel free to respond to the thread here or by following the vimeo thread.

Dorkbot meetings are grassroots gatherings of scientists, artists, designers and engineers. Visit for the overall concept. By the way, Raleigh Dorkbot group (TechShopRDU) just had their monthly meeting yesterday Sept 8! The photo illustrates the poster for the session, in which Chris Rossi presentation entitled "An Inexpert Tinkerer's Introduction to Paleoelectronics: Musical Instrument Amplification with High Voltage Vacuum Tubes." Wish I had been there!


Dustin is with Dorkbot Austin. Mark Plaga is with Dorkbot Raleigh (or rather: TechShop, in the outskirts of the Triangle Research Park). 

The video of Mark's kid controlling a WII-game with a spring horse went viral in a few weeks. This one is of Mark himself; sound and image have less quality than the one with his son but it allows me to quote one of the Youtube comments:

"OK, come on and admit it. The little kid in you still enjoys riding spring horses and you finally figured a legit reason to ride on one without anyone suspecting. ;-)"