Tinkering is about seizing the moment: it is about ad-hoc learning, getting things done, innovation and novelty, all in a highly social, networked environment.
What is tinkering? Discovering that certain snack tins can be used to make an antenna that extends the range of your wi-fi network, using electric toothbrush motors to power small robots, building a high-altitude balloon that takes video of the edge of space, are all examples of tinkering. It is technical work and a cultural attitude.
Tinkering is customizing software and stuff; making new combinations of things that work better than their parts; and discovering new capabilities in or uses for existing products. Despite its fascination with things and bits, it is resolutely human-focused: you don't make things 'better' in some dry technical sense, you make them work better for you. Tinkerers modify everything from cars, computers, and cellphones, to virtual worlds and computer code. They are driven by a desire to experiment, to make existing technologies more useful, and to customize them to better suit users' needs.
According to MIT professor Mitch Resnick, tinkering might look at first like traditional engineering, but it is very different. Both are about designing and making things; but engineering tends to be top-down, linear, structured, abstract and rules-based - a highly formal, organized activity, meant to be carried out in (and in the service of) large organizations. Tinkering, in contrast, is bottom-up, iterative, experimental, practical and improvisational: informal and disorganized, accessible to anyone who is willing to learn (and fail) and it doesn't follow any plan too closely.
The realization that users are often innovators – that they find new uses for, extend the capabilities of, and expand the appeal of existing products – has further empowered tinkering. Tinkering can also (somewhat paradoxically) be a protest against consumer culture and corporations: in an era of restrictive, end- user license agreements, cracking open a case can be defended as an act of resistance.
Tinkering is an amazingly powerful way to learn. It is not about mastering dry, arcane bodies of knowledge: it is about learning how to use your hands, materials, and tools, scrounging stuff and ideas, learning from others and your own mistakes.
Tinkering has found fullest expression in personal computers and electronics. There are good reasons for this. In the last thirty years, personal computers have evolved from programmers' toys to word processors to entertainment platforms to social media, thanks in part to the efforts of users.
The costs of computers and memory are continuing to fall and the demand for digital flexibility and connectivity is growing; aging populations in the advanced world want devices that will help them stay healthy and independent; countries want technologies to monitor emerging threats; companies want to be able to more precisely manage their supply chains and resources; and people show an inexhaustible appetite for connecting with each other.
As the digital infrastructure of pervasive or ubiquitous computing is woven into more everyday objects, more of the world will be tinkerable. And not just more individual objects. As we start to give technologies greater capacity to work together, to self-organize and share tasks, we will start to see tinkerers working with groups of technologies, rather than single objects. We will also see people tinkering with environments filled with sensors, smart dust computers and other technology. Already architects and activists talk about hacking urban infrastructures and tinkering with cities: in a few decades, the descendants of today's car customizers could be working with city blocks.
The world's problems are fiendishly complex. They are [...] a mix of complexity, urgency and uncertainty. They are too complex to be reduced to simple (albeit potentially very difficult) scientific problems; they are too important not to act on, even if we don't have all the information; and it is sometimes not clear if we can ever have certainty about what to do.
These are problems that cannot be entrusted to technocrats or elites: complex problems have to be solved collectively. In such a world, the only way to make a better future is to have people learn to create their own futures: to develop the capacity to solve problems, to see the consequences of their actions, and to be able to act now in ways that help them reach a better future.