Armed with Curiosity: Gareth Branwyn

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By Tiffany Lee Brown
2:00AM on Jul 30, 2010
Originally posted to the SyFy website (in the Eureka Idea Lab)

Since before you could look at pictures on the World Wide Web, Gareth Branwyn has been exploring the fringes of technology and culture, writing about his findings for Wired, Boing Boing, and in various books, including Jamming the Media. He is currently the Editor in Chief of Make magazine’s online empire of cool stuff. In other words, Gareth knows more than you (neener, neener, neener) and you should listen to him:

Tiffany Lee Brown: Tinkerers and starry-eyed visionaries are your forte; you’ve been a honcho-to-be-reckoned-with at Boing Boing, Wired, Street Tech, and now Make. So tell us: what personality characteristics seem to set people up for being good at inventing, at making?

Gareth Branwyn: Recently, at Maker Faire Bay Area, our annual DIY free-for-all in San Mateo, one of the presenters, Raven Hanna (a scientist-turned-artist who makes molecule jewelry) said of the event: “It reminds us what it feels like to be excited about the world and its possibilities, like when we were young. People probably become makers because they never lost that feeling of wonder and creativity, and so many others are rediscovering it.” 

I think that nails a big piece of it. Makers, hackers, tinkerers, DIYers tend to be relentlessly curious about the world and figuring out how it’s put together. Also, I believe that most scientists, engineers, and inventors–the exceptional ones, anyway–are also part poet/artist. As well-known “gonzo engineer” Steven Roberts says: “Art without engineering is dreaming. Engineering without art is calculating.” I think there are increasing numbers of people who are exploring the margin between these two, and that’s very exciting.

TLB: If a person doesn’t come by it naturally, what should she do to become a better DIY mad scientist, inventor, or hacker?

GB: There are so many ways in these days. First off, armed with that above curiosity, and a decent screwdriver set, you can start by taking things apart. We all have tons of techno-junk in our basements (dead VCRs, cameras, cellphones, computers). Strip it down, explore what makes it tick (steer clear of TVs, btw–dangerous current inside), fire up Google and investigate all of the parts you find. 

Many cities now have hackerspaces or citizen science groups. Find the one nearest you and go to an event. They usually have beginner classes in electronics, robots, chemistry, programming, etc. Check out sites like Make and Instructables for beginner-level projects and try your hand at these. And that leads to another aspect of what makes a good maker/inventor: Not being afraid to fail. Just get in there and get your hands dirty. “DIY” starts with “Do!”

TLB: In your work and play, what scientific theories or advancements have been the most inspiring to you over the years?

GB: Oh, wow. So many amazing ones in my lifetime. Off the top of my head, I’d have to go with:

Feedback. The cybernetic idea of feedback–output from a system being fed back into that system as information (signal/current/data) that alters the present/future state of the system–has had a tremendous impact on everything from guided missile systems, where it was first modernly applied, to the understanding of complex ecosystems to rock and roll (Jimi Hendrix, the first cybernetic musician). I’ve always been fascinated by cybernetics, systems theory, control theory–all fundamentally based on the notion of feedback.

Emergence. The basic idea of emergence is that simple, lower-level interactions in a system can create higher orders of complexity that emerge, or self-organize, from these interactions. Emergence/self-organization is found in biological, artificial, and hybrid systems. One amazing, shining example of emergence: you’re soaking in it: the Internet! There are many examples of emergent properties that have been observed in things like crowdsourcing behavior. Personally, I believe, as stated by Arthur Koestler, that “it is the synergistic effects produced by wholes that are the very cause of the evolution of complexity in nature.”

Entanglement. Quantum entanglement was disagreeably described by Einstein as spooky action at a distance. Basically it describes a phenomenon whereby particles (photons, electrons, qubits) that have come into contact with one another continue to exert an influence over each other regardless of how far apart they may be separated. Spooky, indeed. And this influence is faster than the speed of light. Entanglement has potential applications in quantum computing and quantum cryptography.

TLB: One peek at the Gulf Coast tells us we still haven’t figured out how to balance science, technology, and the natural world. As in Eureka, the advancements we make sometimes wreak major havoc before we can contain them. Do you think armchair scientists and DIY makers can influence that balance in the future?

GB: Absolutely. As of a couple weeks ago, people submitted 122,000 ideas to government offices and BP on how to fix the Gulf oil leak. Seven suggested solutions have been field-tested and are going to be tried out in the Gulf, mainly different approaches to skimming. I think one thing the increasing popularity of the DIY/maker movement has done is get people to think creatively about solutions to problems and allows them to think they might even be able to do something about it. 

When you look at some of the innovations that have come out of the hacker movement, from the hugely popular, open-source, Arduino single-board microcontroller (originally developed by artists for artists), the MakerBot 3D printer, and Sugru, a silicon-based Play-Doh-like substance that’s adhesive, waterproof, heat-resistant, and sets up at room temperature–these were all developed by individuals or small groups with next to no budget. They had a big idea and used the Internet to leverage financing, development, manufacturing, and commercial distribution. For the oil leak, sites like Core77, the design site, have started discussions to brainstorm ideas. I think we’ll see far more crowdsourcing of ideas, and actual solutions, in future situations like this.

TLB: Pick one: personal jetpack, warp drive, or Lee Majors-level bionic implants?

Well, I already have an artificial hip, a rebuilt heart, and get shot up six times a year with tweaked mice proteins (Infliximab) for my arthritic disease. I’m a human/machine/mouse hybrid! So, the whole Lee Majors thing? Old news for me. As William Gibson said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” I get the Joint Journal from my orthopedic clinic and I lust after the new hardware. Time for an upgrade.

If I had to choose, it’d be warp drive, without question. It’s not that I don’t love my Mother Earth, but if I had a choice, I would leave her in a smear of light in my rear-view mirror in a (bionic) heartbeat.

[Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid.]

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