- 29 October 2020: sweet neopixel-based bicycle light
Our BackstoryA long time ago, in a condominium complex not too terribly far away, a group of ne'er-do-wells found themselves with a surplus of broken computer technology and an unused storage space under their unit. "Hey," they said, "Let's start dismantling this trash and building working machines with the parts!"
And so the Carrboro Computer Recyclery, aka the Recybery, was off and running, much to the horror of the local Home Owners' Association. We churned countless machine-hours of epidemiological models before the padlock went on the crawlspace door, and the Recybery went dormant.
Well, it's awake now! Take a look around - we're working on some cool projects!
What is the Recybery, Exactly?The current mode of production is premised upon waste and inefficiency: even when they're not designed to be disposable, broken items are thrown out rather than repaired and technology is discarded due to planned obsolescence. This stuffs landfills and maintains artificial scarcity. What is to be done? We have a good example to follow right in town - the Recyclery! These great folks teach volunteers how to refurbish and maintain bicycles, trading instruction and parts for labor. The organization gets help running, and the volunteer gets a bike out of the deal. The Recybery aims to apply this basic model of mutual aid to computers: there are plenty of computers destined for the junkyard whose only defects are age or a few replaceable parts, and there are plenty of people who could use a slightly dented laptop, from students who need to be able to write essays for class to grandparents who want to email their families. Connecting the two will also mean hands-on experience and learning in how computers are built and how they work. This core mission will require a basic infrastructure, including parts, tools and materials, and expertise. As long as we have that in place, why limit ourselves? The same infrastructure necessary to refurbish and redistribute computers can also support a broader, secondary layer of activity.
Hackers, Makers, and Citizen ScientistsWhat might that activity look like? Three broad areas are hacking, making, and citizen science. Hacking especially is a loaded and stigmatized term, so let's walk through what we mean here:
HackingThis might bring to mind creeps remotely snooping through your computer for credit card numbers or sensitive emails. Although bad actors certainly exist, the reality of hacking is much more benign: Wikipedia describes it as the "intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming limitations of software systems to achieve novel and clever outcomes." Hacking is about more than computers: The popular website Hack-A-Day includes clever engineering from electronics to cooking, and the term has roots in an MIT tradition of benign pranksterism. Wikipedia continues: "...the defining characteristic of a hacker is not the activities performed themselves (e.g. programming), but the manner in which it is done and whether it is something exciting and meaningful." Maybe one of the deepest characteristics of hacking is a rejection of functional fixedness, the cognitive bias of thinking about objects in terms of how they're commonly used, rather than their material properties. Have you ever used a paper clip to replace a zipper pull? You might be a hacker and not realize it!
MakingIf you aren't stranded in the wilderness without provisions, you're probably surrounded right now by things that were made: assembled out of parts by someone. The odds are also good that they weren't made by you, or by anyone you know. Generally only one room of the house, the kitchen, is specifically dedicated to making things, and even that gets short-circuited by convenience meals like TV dinners. It's true that some people own a woodshop or an electronics bench, or even a CNC mill in the garage, but that illustrates another facet: this productive capacity is only available to those who can afford those means of production, and even they must somehow provide the knowledge to operate it. Makerspaces can fill in both gaps. The first, by providing access to tools and materials as a common good (such as by acting as a tool library or by renting out time on a 3D printer). The second, by providing both formal instruction and supervision, and by promoting of conversation and skill-sharing between individuals.
Citizen ScienceScience is often thought of as something that's done only by professionals, but that's not true: nonprofessional scientists do valuable work outside of the mainstream. This can be in the form of data gathered by home-based birdwatchers or local environmental surveys, through games like Fold.It, or through self-directed experimenting. This helps to involve and educate people who might otherwise be disconnected from scientific research, and acts to democratize science.
These aren't mutually exclusive processes either. Suppose you wanted to build a piece of open-source instrumentation, like a spectrophotometer. This would be an example of citizen science, but it would also require making to assemble a prototype, and probably hacking as well to come up with a design.