Tag Archives: learning

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Sympathy for the Tinkerer

(c) FreeFoto.comTinkering gets a bad rap and I am making it my personal mission to rehabilitate the term. I keep an eye out for articles about tinkering and it is dismaying to see tinkerers getting the same raw deal as “hackers”.  The original terms have been corrupted by the the ill-informed.

Superficial, childish and possibly dangerous?

Negative uses of the word tinkering tend to fall into two camps. The first camp sees tinkering as a childish pastime that is possibly dangerous.  Take this article by Larry Downes on the U.S. Protect IP Act of 2011 in which he says:

The real danger is that by tinkering desperately with the fundamental machinery of both the Internet and the legal system, the unintended consequences that result could prove catastrophic.

The implication is that tinkerers are like little children playing with things they don’t understand are are likely to break.

The second camp sees tinkering not so much as bad but as insufficient, as a kind of playing around at the edges of something, trying ineffectually to fix it, rather than boldly thinking about building a brand new something. Internet economy guru, Don Tapscott takes this perspective. In his book of last year,  Macrowikieconomics, he argues that tinkering is insufficient. He says,

“But among other things, we need to rethink transportation, adopt new manufacturing and shipping practices, pull off a dramatic shift toward greener products and lifestyles, and retool our energy system, all while devoting enormous intellectual and financial resources to protecting the world’s most vulnerable peoples and locations from the effects of rising sea levels and other consequences. Surely a little bit of political tinkering will be insufficient to achieve all of this.”

He goes on to say

“Most world leaders – indeed, most leaders of business and government anywhere – harbour the same old tired set of assumptions about how to solve the world’s problems. And more often than not, they seem focused on tinkering with old models rather than moving to something new and viable. Consider the dysfunctional financial services industry. Conventional policy wisdom demands more regulation over financial markets. But no one stops to ask whether the current models of regulatory oversight and enforcement are truly equipped for the job.”

Tapscott is not alone.  Take this comment from Daniel Veniez on the Canadian health system:

We have underinvested in people, technology, research, innovation and public health. We must modernize our health-care system, including the Canada Health Act, and this will require more than tinkering.

Or this from David Cunliffe on the New Zealand budget:

If, however, the Budget is simply more of the same tinkering from John Key, and if it pins all our economic hopes on rose-tinted forecasts of economic growth, while refusing to specify where within each department or service cuts will be made, it will not be a success.

All of them are arguing in their cases that structural issues at stake that mere tinkering with existing models will not address.  So there you have it. Superficial, childish and possibly dangerous.

What is a tinker?

Before unpacking the above, it is worth taking a step back in history to understand where the word tinker came from.  A tinker was someone who moved from town to town earning an income by fixing broken metal things, pots, pans, etc. Not perhaps a pillar of society, in fact tinkers didn’t get much respect back then either, but they played an essential if unglamorous role, someone who knew how to fix things. And how did they fix things? The modern connotation of the word tinker would have you believe that a tinker would fix a broken utensil by casually rapping away at it with a overweight hammer. That sort of tinker would probably not have lasted very long.

A successful tinker, given the modest tools he might have in his possession, would require a deep knowledge of metals and their properties and how they interacted with each other. He might not know the atomic structure of copper but he would have a profound sense of its malleability, durability, melting point, and how it might be combined with other metals. He would understand how pots are made and how to take them apart without breaking them. Consequently, he would be in a position to improve a badly made pot. Or he might be able to take his deep knowledge of metals and utensils and craft new utensils.

Beware of enterprises requiring new clothes

The notion that we need to “re-think” things and create new models and that gently experimenting with things is bad is a dangerous meme.  If we are asking leaders to take bolder steps to implement change, what confidence do we have that they know the answer to the problems they are trying to solve?  Actually we already KNOW that they don’t know. Economies are complex adaptive systems that consistently defy prediction.

Even the notion of models is a largely a case of retrospective coherence. We use models to explain things but the generally model comes AFTER things have changed not before. Of course there are exceptions to that, visions of how the world ought to be like the Communist Manifesto but history has had something to say about the viability of that approach. Retrospective coherence and the models we build from it is how we make sense of the world and how we spread good ideas but it is not how innovation and change comes about.

So really it is the kind of sweeping change that Mr. Tapscott proposes that is dangerous, that could have catastrophic repercussions that might take a generation of more to repaid.  A great example of this is California’s wholesale importation of  direct democracy from Switzerland, the disastrous consequences of which may actually be undoable.  That is exactly the kind of bold idea that Mr. Tapscott is proposing.

That makes me sound quite conservative but I am actually proposing something radical.  A million small changes.  We need to unleash the power to do many small experiments in our social, economic, political and regulatory systems and we need the means to learn from successes and failures and nurture those small successes.

The modern Tinkerer

What we need is to give people with deep local knowledge the freedom to experiment with systems.  And why am I on about this now?  It’s not just the bold punditry of Don Tapscott that has me up in arms.  More locally, Vodacom CEO Pieter Uys has proposed an open access network for rural access, an idea which in principle sounds great.  Infrastructure sharing is overdue in South Africa, however, the devil is in the details.  He argues that ICASA shouldn’t experiment with untested models.

“It should develop a plan with input from regulators in the rest of the world, from suppliers and other experts, to say what is the best for SA in the long term based on the country’s goals.”

So what confidence do we have that we will get it right this time?  We need adaptive policies that open up freedom for innovation and more importantly allow us to recover gracefully from mistakes.  Our previous record with importing “tested” regulatory models from the rest of the world is hardly a success story.  We are saddled with a rich-world regulatory environment that demands a strong, well-trained and well-resourced regulator to implement.

I fear that Mr. Uys’  idea of an ‘open access’ is one where Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Telkom share the cost of rural infrastructure and extend their cosy and largely uncompetitive club into rural areas.  And if this turns out to be true, how will we recover from it?  If we have learned one thing from South African telcos it is that once their interests are entrenched they extremely difficult to change.  We need a system that encourages flexible market-based innovation in service delivery.

An idea whose time has come

This notion that we more of an evolutionary approach to change is not my own.  It has been championed by many distinguished writers from Nassim Nicholas Taleb to Eric Beinhocker.  More recently, author Peter Sims makes the case for this in his book Little Bets. He says:

“Little bets are a way to explore and develop new possibilities. Specifically, a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea. Chris Rock develops new comedy routines by making little bets with small audiences; Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos makes small bets to identify opportunities in new markets like cloud computing. Little bets are at the center of an approach to get to the right idea without getting stymied by perfectionism, risk-aversion, or excessive planning.”

Tim Harford of Undercover Economist fame, makes a similar case in his new book Adapt.  He argues that

“today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions; the world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex. Instead, we must adapt—improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up rather than the top down, and take baby steps rather than great leaps forward.”

So, please let’s not have another “best practice” that hasn’t actually yet stood the test of time, rolled out wholesale in South Africa.  Let’s create an environment where Pieter Uys can experiment with his model but allow others to flourish as well.  What about community-owned towers where communities invite service providers to bid to offer services on their infrastructure.  Would that work?  Maybe.  Let’s have a small experiment to find out. And Television White Spaces spectrum?  One might argue that this is simply another untested idea being imported into South Africa.  That’s a fair call but the cost of failure is minuscule.  If TV White Spaces spectrum fails, we won’t even have had to re-allocate any spectrum as it is designed for secondary, serendipitous use.   On the other hand, give all the 700-800 megahertz spectrum to the incumbents and that will take a generation or more to fix.

What I liked about the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship

Guilty admission. I am a fault finder.  Show me a perfect rose and I will find the petal that is slightly wilted. Or at least that’s how I grew up. I’ve spent much of my adult life learning to behave differently but it still comes out from time to time. What’s wrong with being critical? Science (with a capital S) and the entire canon of western philosophy is based on the notion of critical thought and the importance of understanding the weaknesses of an argument in order to craft a better one. But is criticism the best way to find truth? Let’s imagine knowledge as an physical structure. If I look at the edifice of your knowledge and I detect a weakness in the foundation, is pointing out your flaw the most important thing I can do? What if I chose not to focus on that but to rather emphasise how innovative your second-floor window design is and how that will help me improve the design of my structure. This is building on success as opposed to emphasising flaws. This positive approach can help break down the defensive positions that we find ourselves in when engaging with others, especially others who are at work in similar fields to us.

Of course criticism has a role to play. If I thought a flawed foundation was going to put anyone at risk, I would speak up but it might be easier to make someone aware of the virtues of a stronger foundation than to point out bad a flawed one is. Because like it or not, we own the foundations of our knowledge and we don’t like it when someone tells us we bought a lemon.

Faciliator extraordinaire Sam Kaner has an excellent table in his book the Faciliator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making which explores these two different value systems:

Either / Or Both / And
Value System Competitive Collaborative
Type of Outcome Expected Win / Lose Win / Win
Attitude toward “Winning” To the victor goes the spoils Your success is my success
Attitude toward “Losing” Someone has to lose If somebody loses everybody loses
Attitude toward minority opinions Get with the program Everyone has a piece of the truth
Why explore differences between competing opinions? To search for bargaining chips, in preparation for horsetrading and compromise. To build a shared framework of understanding, in preparation for mutual creative thinking.
Essential Mental Activity Analyse: break wholes into parts Synthesise: integrate parts into wholes
How long it takes It’s usually faster in the short run It’s usually faster in the long run
Underlying philosophy Survival of the fittest Interdependence of all things

So what does this have to do with the Skoll World Forum? I mention it because for the most part, the Forum embodied this notion of interdependence, of openness, of our collective need to work together to solve the most pressing problems of our time. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that almost everyone at the event, young or old, rich or poor, were friendly and ready to engage whether milling around or in more facilitated environments.

I talked to people standing in queues, I barged into conversations, people spontaneously joined tables. It reminded me of a great XKCD t-shirt I have always wanted to buy and wear to events.  Not that amazing perhaps but also not that common especially if you’re like me, better in small groups than in big events. My last experience of something like this was last year at AfrikaBurn where the spirit of the gift economy is very strong.   So real kudos to the organisers of the Skoll World Forum who have done an amazing job at cultivating a spirit of openness and engagement. I got a lot out of it because the participants were so willing to give.

And was it perfect? Not at all. And here I still bite my tongue not to expose its flaws in order to show you how clever I am. Maybe I’ll get over that completely one day.


Have you ever purchased a book in a second hand book store and found when you got home that the margins of the pages were crammed with annotations? A bit like the page from James Joyce’s Ulysses at the right. Some may be irritated by the spoiling of a pristine printed page but I  confess to a minor voyeuristic thrill at the prospect of looking at the book through someone else’s eyes. Looking at the text through someone else’s eyes actually makes your relationship to the book more complex.  There are two stories now, the one you created by reading the story and the one that the mysterious annotater created.

When I was in my early twenties, someone gave me a copy of The Annotated Alice as a gift.  The Annotated Alice is a work (of love I suspect) by Martin Gardner, who wrote the Mathematical Games column for the Scientific American for many, many years.  The book is the text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass accompanied by detailed annotations by Gardner revealing the background elements of the story, the Victorian context, as well as the mathematical beauty that Lewis Carrol encoded in his prose and poetry.  This book transformed my appreciation of Lewis Carroll. It also made me aware of how much richer a work can be for having the context in which to appreciate it.  In looking it up for this post, I have since discovered that the publishers have several other annotated volumes.

These thoughts came to mind as I was having a discussion with colleagues at the Shuttleworth Foundation about John-Seely Brown’s perspective on education which emphasises learning through doing but also and perhaps more importantly the importance of learning as a social activity.  In particular, he often gives the example of students of architecture working in an open environment in which a significant part of the learning is the “crit” in which the instructor reviews the work of each journeyman architect as a social exercise.  He says,

students work together in a common space and peripherally participate in each other’s design process; hence they can benefit from their instructors’ comments on and critiques of other students’ projects and not just from comments on their own work.

I imagine this to be somewhat similar to the learning that goes on among medical residents on Grand Rounds.

I thought back to high school and the experience reading well-known set works of literature.  It occurred to me that many of those works are now out of copyright, many of which have been captured by Project Gutenberg.  Wouldn’t it be remarkable if students could access an online environment in which they could annotate the works they were reading and then participate in a “crit” with their instructor in which they discuss the annotations of their peers.  The annotations might start off as a blank slate which evolves into a class collection of annotations. But why stop there?  Why not have a Slashdot/Digg style rating system in which insightful annotations get voted up and mundane ones get buried.  The whole text might become a digital palimpsest of interpretation.

So, just an idea for the moment but one I’m keen to try out.  I can’t help but feel that someone must already be doing something like this.  If anyone has any pointers, I’d love to hear about them.

2011 update: Rufus Pollock and Open Knowledge Foundation have nailed this.  Check out AnnotateIt.

In Praise of Taking Things Apart

The Economic Value of Taking Things Apart

In the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Paul Romer writes:

“Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe.”

Patak’s Madras Curry To take the analogy a little further, if I have a jar of Patak’s Madras curry paste there are a fairly limited number of tasty recipes that I can come up with. However, if I were able to disassemble or reverse-engineer that jar of pre-made curry, I would have a range of ingredients turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, etc from which I could create an almost unlimited number of recipe variations. This is obviously pretty unlikely with something like curry paste. However, not so with technology.

In The Origin of Wealth (to date the only book on Economics I have ever felt gripped by), Eric Beinhocker also explores what I am tempted to call the fractal nature of technology:

“each invention creates both the possibility of, and the need for, more inventions”… Why does technology have this exponential, bootstrapping quality? How does technology feed its own growth? Physical technologies have a modular building block quality to them. Any physical technology can be thought of as coding for both components and an architecture. A house has components (e.g. rooms, plumbing systems, windows) as well as an overall design (e.g. Mock Tudor)”

It seems fairly self-evident that understanding and being able to dissassemble technology into its constituent parts exponentially increases the opportunity for innovation, for hybridising, improving, cross-pollinating technologies into new forms of value.

The Trend Towards Un-takeapartable Technologies

In the context of the above, it is curious that technology has steadily become more and more difficult to disassemble. We have gained in push-button convenience but lost the learning and innovation opportunities that come with taking things apart and tinkering with them.

John Seely-Brown is particularly passionate on the topic of “tinkering” and argues that it is a critical strategy for learning. He argues that Open Source software has become an important place where technology (in this case software) can be taken apart and tinkered with. In the same Steve Hargadon interview with him that I mentioned in a previous post, John Seely-Brown says:

“A huge amount of the learning that a lot of us do, that formed the foundations of all the formal education that we got afterwards, could be called “tinkering.” Because of changes in electronics and cars, a whole generation couldn’t tinker. In the last ten years, these participatory architectures have introduced tinkering again. It is virtual and social tinkering, not necessarily mechanical, tinkering. And what is interesting is that it is relatively non-gender-specific. You are going to find women tinkering as much as guys do.”

This recognition of the importance of taking things apart and its role in learning has grown to the point where now in California, you can send your kids to a Tinkering School which builds the confidence of children to take technology apart and to be creative with technology. I can recommend a short, entertaining TED talk by the school’s founder Gever Tulley.

In industry, the notion of opening up technology to customers in order to facilitate innovation, Open Innovation, has been gaining traction for a number of years. The Economist has a good summary of this trend.

Taking Things Apart Not Things Falling Apart

From my perspective, this is a particularly important issue in places like Africa where history of technology transfer has often been a particularly disempowering one. The two-fold potential of empowering learners and fostering innovation make a compelling argument to encourage a culture of taking technology apart in Africa.

It is why I am so inspired by the innovation that is happening with wireless routers and the exploration of their potential as an alternative communication infrastructure for parts of Africa not well-served by existing telecommunications carriers.

Make Magazine - TshirtMake Magazine, a publication for people who like to take technology apart, have a great motto on one of their promotional T-shirts: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”. It strikes me that that is a pretty good motto for African technologists. Opening technology opens innovation and teaches skills that are difficult to learn any other way.