Mark Pilgrim’s post Tinkerer’s Sunset laments the increasing tendency of Apple devices to be locked for development unless you have
a Mac, XCode, an iPhone . He goes on to write about his introduction to programming as a child:
simulator, and $99 for an auto-expiring developer certificate
But you don’t become a hacker by programming; you become a hacker by tinkering. It’s the tinkering that provides that sense of wonder. You have to jump out of the system, tear down the safety gates, peel away the layers of abstraction that the computer provides for the vast majority of people who don’t want to know how it all works. It’s about using the Copy ][+ sector editor to learn how the disk operating system boots, then modifying it so the computer makes a sound every time it reads a sector from the disk. Or displaying a graphical splash screen on startup before it lists the disk catalog and takes you to that BASIC prompt. Or copying a myriad of wondrous commands from the Beagle Bros. Peeks & Pokes Chart and trying to figure out what the fuck I had just done. Just for the hell of it. Because it was fun. Because it scared my parents. Because I absolutely had to know how it all worked.
I was something of a tinkerer as a tween and teen too, although at a more superficial level. I liked to change the colours of the desktop, I set up a different boot sequence because our 486 didn’t have the memory to run both Windows 3.1 and Doom II, and so on. But Pilgrim’s throwaway line about “scared my parents” struck me, because this did scare my parents.
My parents weren’t scared of a loss of control over me in the way that, I think, Pilgrim is implying. They were specifically scared: scared I’d make our family’s shared computer, which they’d barely been able to afford, unusable for everyone (and I did on a few occasions). And they certainly didn’t know, and neither did I, that tinkering with it was any kind of investment in getting jobs in the future. That’s what university is for, and the computer was an investment in me having the computer literacy I’d need to pass university. (The web was in the public eye by then, this was the 1990s, but at the time “computer literacy” meant word processing skills.)
That kind of tinkering isn’t accessible unless you can do it to a device you own, whether because it has no other user, you don’t especially care about those other users, or because you’ve been specifically told that you’re more important than those other users. I didn’t have any gadgets that met those criteria. It requires money, leisure time, and people who recognise the value of you having such a relationship with your toys. I don’t have brothers, so I can’t say whether or not a brother would have been implicitly granted the ability to break our shared gadgets for his own education in the way I wasn’t: some women do report this.
One of the early things I did when I started earning money above my basic living needs (in 2000 some university students could get computing jobs that met this criteria) was buy my very own computer, and it was worth it many times over for all the Linux installs, Windows installs, SMTP config and similar I did to it.
What about you? Did you have a tinkerable toy (in the broad sense of ‘toy’) as a child that you were granted licence to tinker with? How about as an adult? How about now? Or alternatively, have you been put in second place while your useful tool was given to someone else to take apart and put together at their own leisure? And how has this influenced your geek journey?
Update: If you want to discuss the general issue that Pilgrim raised in a way that isn’t either (a) your personal tinkering experiences or (b) a feminist discussion of tinkering, can you put it on your own blogs or in Pilgrim’s comments please? It will derail this thread otherwise.