Orange Unit: A Person-Centered Launch
Background Knowledge Probe
- What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone brings up the term “information system” in a conversation?
- What components, if any, do you consider to be part of that information system?
What is an Information System?
Information System: An integrated set of components for collecting, storing, and processing data and for providing information, knowledge, and digital products.
As we work through the Orange Unit, we’ll explore the basic parts of our everyday information systems. Over the millennia of human existence, devices have been created for collecting, processing, storing, disseminating and using data, the symbols used to represent real-world entities. Sociotechnical strategies have also emerged to advance understanding of data in the form of information and to make this information actionable in the form of knowledge. The accumulation of knowledge and a refined understanding of this accumulated knowledge advances what some refer to as wisdom. The data, information, knowledge, and wisdom pyramid has proved very useful in the information sciences as a means of investigating how different aspects of this pyramid have influenced the shaping of individuals, communities, societies, organizations, and governing bodies. 
For much of our history, humans have worked with mechanical devices to create information systems. Consider for instance Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press or Herman Hollerith’s census calculator as but two examples of Euro-American inventions. But you can go back much further, to devices like the abacus, and even earlier still — to find innovations of mechanical technologies from around the world that have facilitated progress along the data, information, knowledge, and wisdom pyramid. Carolyn de la Peña provides a very useful lens in her article “Slow and Low Progress”:
Defined here as the material or systemic result of human attempts to extend the limits of power over the body and its surroundings, technology has been an essential tool in our ability to feed, clothe, house, and protect our bodies. It has unified individuals across expanses of time and space in a manner that has extended pleasure and prevented pain.
Rapid growth of the human population in the 20th century, combined with growing organizational and governance structures shaped via the industrial revolution and the impact of two major world wars, led to the rapid advancement of electronic computing systems. Key electronic systems were developed during World War II. After the war, new searches began for innovative uses of these systems and the components from which they were created. Business, academic, governmental, and other research institutions began a dedicated effort to consider what to do with the machineries of war, things like large tractors and poisonous gases. During World War I, there were posters proclaiming that Uncle Sam wants you to have two chickens per person. In World War II, Victory Gardens were seen as a civic duty to support the war effort. Entering the 1950s, the call was made by president after president, asking that we do our duty and buy from grocery stores in support of the modern farm that made use of those former war machineries to create innovative new agricultural systems.
Take a moment to consider again what comes to mind when someone brings up the term “information system” in conversation — in particular, in relation to these key transitions in information systems described above. What are the most beneficial outcomes that come to mind with the inventions of these information systems? What are the most problematic outcomes? Why do these come to mind? How do these come to mind?
Mechanical and electronic information systems are tightly interrelated social and technical systems. The mutual shaping of social and technical components is highly complex and has seen, unseen, and unforeseen positive and negative impacts on individuals and the things that they value being and doing. We shape them and we are shaped by them. Others shape them and are shaped by them. And yet, too often we miss seeing inside the black box that we are an active part of, even if we don’t know we are.
And so we launch the Orange Unit by discovering the building blocks that make up basic electronic circuits. It’s time to meet that often deeply hidden essential component of electronic systems face-to-face. We will use some instrumental approaches to apply deductive reasoning to discover relationships between individual components within an electronic circuit. We will begin to learn the key terms, concepts, and practices underlying the creation and use of these components to build electronic tools and larger systems.
But at the same time, we start Session 1 also beginning to test out some practical approaches to knowledge by exploring the context and experiences of others’ lifeworlds through inquiry using inductive reasoning. And, on occasion we will also find ourselves using abductive reasoning, seeking creative leaps to reveal hidden forces and structures underlying the mutual shaping of the information systems around us.
- Urban, Ivette Bayo. “We Are Our Stories: Is Technology Rewriting Our Values?” YouTube, December 23, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7oN1zdS8HE.
- Bate, Alex. “Electronics 101.1: Electricity Basics.” Raspberry Pi, October 16, 2018. https://www.raspberrypi.com/news/electronics-101-1-electricity-basics/.
- Adafruit Industries. “Collin’s Lab: Breadboards & Perfboards #Adafruit.” YouTube, February 28, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0c3t0fJhXU.
Key Technical Terms
- Closed and open
- Key conductive materials such as and
- Key electronic components, including , , and , which include both and legs
- Key terms used when working with electricity, including or amps, or volts, , and
Professional Journal Reflections:
- Ivette Bayo Urban notes that we are our stories. She also asks, is technology rewriting our values? After reading the text and context of the above essential resources, and before diving into the “Introduction to Electronic Circuits” chapter of Session 1, take some time to reflect on one or two of your own stories, and:
- Ways these stories have shaped your selection and use of your everyday electronics?
- Ways you have shaped these electronics, if any?
- After learning more about the basics of electronics, revisit and reflect again on your own stories and the mutual shaping of you by these and your/others’ shaping of these.
- What key takeaways did you discover through these essential resources and the hands-on exercises of “Introduction to Electronic Circuits”?
- Kate McDowell. “Storytelling wisdom: Story, information, and DIKW.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 72, no. 10 (2021: 1223-1233. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.24466. ↵
- Carolyn de la Peña. “‘Slow and Low Progress,’ or Why American Studies Should Do Technology.” American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 915–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40068398. ↵
- TED Talks are licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0. ↵
Social and technical aspects of devices and systems are not two separate side-by-side items, but different interdependent aspects of the sociotechnical whole that have emergent properties beyond the sum of their parts. Sociotechnical information systems include a range of hardware, software, and networking technical layers, as well as individual and group social layers.
When working with electrical components, a circuit is the complete path that allows an electric current to flow from source voltage back to the source ground. Circuits generally include one or more electrical components along this path which are powered by the source.
A closed circuit is one in which current can flow fully from its source voltage to its ground return uninterrupted.
An open circuit is one in which there is an interruption in the flow of current from its source voltage to its ground return.
A breadboard used to be a board (sometimes literally a board for cutting bread) with nails pounded into it so that you could wrap wires around them to make experimental models of electric circuits. Today, the breadboard is a piece of plastic with holes in it. Underneath each hole is a metal clip. These metal clips connect together a specified set of holes ordered into a row or column. This way, pushing a piece of conductive material into one hole right away connects that material to things pushed into other holes that are joined together by that clip.
A perfboard is a thin, rigid sheet with holes but no metal clips on the other side. Instead, copper pads are used, to which conductors can be soldered. In some cases, as with the perma-proto breadboards from Adafruit, copper is further used to group together certain holes, mimicking the breadboard in a way that provides greater durability for prototyping work.
Wires are made of either a thicker solid metal or thinner strands of multiple wires, placed within a non-conductive material. The exposed ends of the wire can then be inserted into two different holes on the breadboard to safely conduct current from one hole to another, helping to extend the circuit between different electrical components. These are sometimes attached to a plastic holder to provide greater strength. If a solid metal wire end has been soldered into the other side of that plastic holder, it is known as a male end. If a metal wire can be temporarily inserted into the other side of that plastic holder, it is known as a female end. If a pair of metal clips attached with springs is provided, it is known as an alligator clip.
Electrical resistance reduces the flow of current through a circuit. Resistors are the typical electrical components used to provide resistance in a circuit, and are listed in ohms. For instance, the exercises in the book mainly use 470- or 560-ohm resistors, also abbreviated as 470 Ω or 560 Ω resistors.
Electronic switches are used to control the flow of current on a circuit. They can be used to switch between the closed position, in which a current continues its flow through a circuit, and the open position, in which the current is not passed through. A classic example of this type is a light switch, in which a closed position would turn on a light and an open position would turn off that light. Closing the switch completes the circuit. Other switches are used to control the amount of current that flows across the circuit. A classic example of this type is a dimmer switch for a light used to brighten or dim the brightness of a light.
While the above are common mechanical switches, it is also possible to use programming code to switch the flow of current along a circuit. A common method for doing this is through use of a transistor, which uses a low current signal to one leg of the transistor provided by the program to determine the flow of a larger amount of current through the transistors other two legs.
A semiconductor that passes current from one terminal to another terminal and in which current can only flow in one direction, known as rectification. Some common uses of diodes include reverse current protection, to clip or clamp circuits, and to provide logic gates. Another common usage is as a source for generating light, known as a Light-Emitting Diode, or LED. Different LEDs work at different wavelengths (the measure of distance between the peak and the trough in a wave), associated with different recognized colors of light. Some LEDs are made to be especially bright, such as a car headlamp made to help us see the road more clearly. Others are meant to be more diffuse, thereby working more as a source of information, like a car brake light or turn signal. Multiple light-emitting diodes can be packaged together in groups of three that include a red, a green, and a blue LED. These RGB LEDs can be further packaged together to create a full LED matrix display.
The positively charged electrodes conducting electric current from a cell into a device like a diode.
The negatively charged electrodes conducting electric current out of a device, like a diode, and back to a cell.
Current is a flow of electrons from relatively positive points to relatively negative points, and is listed in amperes, or amps. Different electronics are capable of using different maximum currents, so it is sometimes necessary to provide resistance to reduce the current passing through the component.
Voltage is a quantitative expression of the electromotive force required for a charge to pass between two points in an electrical field. Common household voltages include 120- and 240-volt circuits. Common computer and other microelectronic voltages include 12-, 5-, and 3.3-volt circuits. Electrical components are designed for specific voltages and need power adapters if the supply of energy does not meet the component requirements.
A unit of power used to quantify the rate of energy transfer.
In electrical engineering, ground, also called earth, provides a physical reference point in an electrical circuit from which voltage can be measured.
For electronic circuits, electrical ground, also called common, is the return path to a power supply.
Today, most building 120- and 240-volt outlets have power, common, and ground. Many microelectronics make use of only power and common, while certain of our electronics also need earth-source ground in addition to power and common, or electrical ground.