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Making Things…Web Development and Digital Fabrication

January 31, 2012

A good friend of mine took a class this past quarter, for which she was given the assignment to interview someone she knew. I was honored to be chosen as her subject, which gave us the opportunity to have a series of discussions about the work that I do for the Knowlton School of Architecture, and the threads I see running between two seemingly-unrelated halves of my job. I’m pretty happy with the result, but I’ll let you judge for yourself. More self-reflective thoughts after the break:

I was honored that Lorrie chose me for the subject of her video, in part because it gave me a reason to further clarify – for myself as much as anyone else – what I appreciate about my current position at the school. My appointment is split 50/50 between two disparate areas of technology – the web and digital fabrication. On the one hand, I maintain and develop web applications such as the Digital Library and Community (as well as the school’s public-facing website). On the other hand, I work with machines like CNC tables, laser cutters, rapid prototypers and hot wire foam cutters.

The two worlds are very different: one is very messy, and leaves me filthy after spray-cleaning a lead screw underneath a CNC table. The other is highly abstract, asking that I squint at a three-monitor display while wrangling a combination of database queries, scripting languages, CSS styling rules, and Javascript behaviors. Yet I’m happiest on days when I get to work in both realms, enabling students to do great work.

I’ve had a series of conversations with coworkers over the years where people have told me that, eventually, I would need to pick one half of my job to pursue further. I’ve always resisted that advice, but could never put my finger on why it was so hard. There didn’t seem to be much in common between these worlds. Through my conversations with Lorrie, however, I’ve come to identify some of the common threads between web platforms and digital fabrication.

Technology and Literacy

Both worlds challenge me to enable users’ technological literacy. With a laser cutter, or with a blogging platform, students (or faculty) explore their ideas and test theories. They can then receive feedback from others about their efforts. Simply by my coordinating the resource, they have an opportunity to better themselves. Additionally, by pushing the boundaries of those platforms myself I can then act as a guide to advise them how to achieve their goals. It is for this reason that I really enjoy when I get requests from out of the blue. Want to laser-etch concrete? Sure. Take all the technology you own on a trip to London, and live blog the whole thing? Let’s get you a GPS track stick too. Stand before the Dayton city council and present videos of possibilities for their city? Let’s make that happen.

The needs of our culture in the coming years will demand that its citizens be able to express themselves, and evaluate others’ expressions, through a range of mediums. If I can help people meet those demands, then I count that as a life well spent.

literac with technology. They can both be tools for users to construct knowledge, and for self-expression. This is increasingly important for me – that I feel like I am contributing to students’ literacy and efficacy when it comes to technological expression.

Tinkering and Play

Additionally, both fields lend themselves to tinkering. Typically, there is no single right answer to any challenge – but there is that moment where your work stands on its own, and either works or it doesn’t. I remember hearing John Seely Brown (and others) comment on this external moment of judgement, and its power – you don’t need to believe my assertion that I did something, you can judge for yourself. My efforts may not be as intrinsically cool as the QU8K amateur rocket, but the people around me can still use the equipment I maintain, or they cannot.

Beyond that external moment of truth, there are opportunities to “creatively misuse” platforms from time to time. Most recently I spent several hours trying to piece together a bulk upload tool in Drupal (more on that in a future post) because the module we had been using started going haywire and deleting images from our digital library (sound like a bad sci fi movie?). After hacking and plugging several things together, I now have a working prototype of a bulk uploader that seems like it will work better than our old system ever did. The videos I’ve been putting out on YouTube lately have focused on a simple-to-use scanning platform that I’m infatuated with, and am looking for a way to apply to studio. Past tinkering efforts have focused on reusing a Wiimote, and seeing whether we can use a Cricut in studio.

The fact that I have a job where I feel empowered to keep tabs on technologies this diverse, and find ways to adapt them within our school for educational and research purposes, makes me giddy.

There’s More…

I’m still chewing on some parts of my position at the KSA (particularly the bits around open education and how these effects might scale), so I’ll need to re-visit this at another time. For now, if you’re curious about the person behind this blog, I invite you to watch the video above.

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