Today I spent a few hours at the Maker Faire, an event created by O'Reilly Publications which celebrates our human urge to put things together - things that amuse, delight and amaze others. Held at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds, the weekend event provides a venue for people to show off the things they have made and to meet people who are interested in those things. Lena and I wandered through several gloomy halls which were alive with all kinds of sound and light emitted by the devices being displayed, as well as the low roar of the attendees talking, children playing and exhibitors explaining. Their noise was punctuated by a robotic band with a set of drums and other instruments playing automatically.
The most inspiring thing for me was to watch the children darting
about trying various things (there were many opportunities to sit down
and try one's hand at putting something together, whether it be from
paper , cloth, or wire). To provide an experience of enchantment with
technology on the part of children is to do something most important. I
grew up able to roam about a very good science and technology museum
(the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia) and benefitted
greatly from that sense of enchantment.
The exhibits could be quite simple, as one in which a past acquaintance of mine invited viewers to try their hand at soldering wires without using a soldering iron. This turned out to be accomplished simply by heating the wire (wrapped with solder) using a cigarette lighter. The point was to give the participants the experience of melting solder and seeing how it behaved. Like most exhibits, there was no commercial payoff to the exhibitor. It was there to increase people's familiarity with certain aspects of technology - even the low technology of creating solder joints.
There were various electric vehicles (including a ridiculous flotilla of oversized cupcakes which people could drive around with their heads poking from the tops - built around the individual electric carts which give mobility to people who cannot walk well), a steel giraffe that slowly strode along with people riding on it, demonstrations of "soft circuits" made with fabric and conductive yarn, a small catapult which tossed wadded-up T-shirts to be caught be groups of children, a 3-D TV system with the camera trained on the observer, and much, much more.
Some of the more absurd exhibits had been built for the Burning Man festival, and it was good not to have to brave a desert environment to see them. But the main lesson I took away was that people really love to play with technology, high and low, and it's the best way for them to learn. Along with this observation comes the understanding that a lot of careful work has to be put in by the exhibitors in order to allow this play to take place.
I have done a little design work in this area, but have not carried it through to completion. It's easy to design hardware but much more difficult to work out the courseware that gives the hardware its context. Returning from the Maker Faire I have decided to publish here whatever I've done in the hopes of inspiring others to complete the work. Watch for some more posts here detailing some possible projects. After all, there will be another Maker Faire in Austin, Texas in October and again in the spring here in Silicon Valley.
I would be honored if my ideas could inspire something that becomes part of the Maker Faire.