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In Response to “Innovation, education, and Makers”

by kevin on October 18th, 2010

The following is an open letter I’ve written to Thomas Kalil in response to his opening speech of the NSF‘s “Innovation, Education, and the Maker Movement” workshop.

If you agree with the sentiments presented here, please share this with your friends. Your thoughts and contributions are welcome in the comments section.


Dear Mr. Kalil,

I cannot tell you how overjoyed I am that our Nation’s leaders have finally opened an intrigued eye to the blossoming Maker movement.  Your speech following the Maker Faire in New York was encouraging, exciting, and promising. It put a well deserved spotlight on the achievements of garage tinkerers and hackers around the country (and let’s be honest, the world).  That our leaders are paying attention to these atypical, underground activities and interested in turning them into mainstream, common American values is incredibly motivating to me as a maker.

There is, however, one facet of this movement that was overlooked in your speech, and as far as I can tell, is unfortunately overlooked everywhere STEM is championed.  It is an undeniable aspect of humanity as valuable to Captain Picard as it was to Albert Einstein.  It has been a driving force, technologically and economically, in the multi-billion dollar video game industry (and thus, the personal computer and home entertainment industries).  It is introduced to Americans before Kindergarten, but somewhere along the path to high school, it is hopelessly abandoned as impractical and unproductive. But, it is also how we stop fragmenting ourselves into STEMs; it is how we come together to pick up STEAM for the renaissance (and yes, the ice cream was its idea).

Of course I am talking about art.

While art is a broad word that is dangerously all-encompasing (there is indeed an art to routing a circuit board, and a quite different art to designing a state machine), the art I am talking about here is fine art — that which Wikipedia defines as “developed primarily for aesthetics and/or concept rather than practical application.” Fine art is no longer just painting on a canvas, drawing musical notes on a stave, or spinning clay into a pot.  Fine art, in addition to everything it used to be, is electrical, dynamic, and algorithmic now, and to borrow from Oscar Wilde, as “quite useless” as it ever was. Take as an example, Syyn Labs‘ recent contribution to GLOW.

I wasn’t at the Maker Faire in New York, but I have been to two in San Mateo, and many of the projects I saw there not practically useful, but were quite inspiring. Many of the useful projects I did see had one thing in common with the beloved MakerBots and DIYDrones: They were based on an Arduino, the open-source microcontroller and programming environment designed by artists for everyone.

Yes, the Arduino does fall under the blanket category of Technology, but it would be naive to think that its developers were trained only as technologists and engineers.  Their training in art, sociology, and community is doubtlessly and inextricably linked to the platform’s success across its diverse applications. Their desire to create something useful for artists is what drove them to simplify the user interface and lower the barrier to entry.

As I mentioned above, art also has a crucial role in the video game industry.  Visual arts in video games are the reason why many of my friends own HDTVs.  They are also the reason that companies like nVidia and ATi have had a thriving market in which to sell graphics cards and innovate parallel processing.  By and large, people want the latest GeForce and Radeon cards for artistic reasons: they want their games to look good. It wasn’t until very recently that using these massively parallel architectures for anything else was even reasonable.

I could go on about other examples of influences of fine arts on technology, like “Daisy” and the Altair 8800, but your time is valuable, and so is mine, so I’ll cut to the point.  This letter is to ask you to take a step back, have a look at the immense discrepancy between grant opportunities from the NSF and those from the NEA, and think about what we can do to pick up STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Educating and encouraging our children to embrace artistic expression is just as important as teaching them calculus and the periodic table.  Let’s encourage our engineers to design new Most Useless Machines.  Let’s inspire our mathematicians to devise new mind-boggling N-dimensional fractal animations.  Let’s teach our artists to write programs and draw schematics so that they might create an electronic Mona Lisa.  And let’s show our children how fun and intertwined all of these fields are, so that they may form communities that flourish as they grow older and spread the joy to their children, and so on.

The train is headed in the right direction, we just need to invite everyone aboard.

Sincerely,

Kevin Nelson
Computer Engineer, Electronic Musician, Crasher

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