Blue Unit: Computational Tinkering
Background Knowledge Probe
Reflect back on a way that you’ve taken something you have and used it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used, in order to get something done that you couldn’t do otherwise. Then, consider the landscape of methods you used to accomplish this innovation-in-use.
- What are some ways you’ve used this and other methods and practices over time in similar contexts? How they have evolved over time? What are some ways these methods and practices may have originated as a part of your everyday or occasional praxis?
- How might these methods and practices have shaped your work so far through this book, both positively and negatively?
- What are some ways these methods and practices may be further developing as you work through this book?
Tinkering as Research
My work as a tinker began very early as my family encouraged me to tear apart any and all no-longer-used tools around me. Of course, while the goal was to discover what was inside and to make them work again, those earliest days were almost always “Not Yet” fail forward moments. At around 5, I was offered the opportunity to earn 50 cents an hour to help with basic sweeping, cleaning, and moving of sawdust and wood in the family sawmill. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my first apprenticeship role. It seemed boring, but what was really happening was a first discovery of the music and performance of the sawmill as sociotechnical system. It is a combination of senses, knowledge, culture, community, and technology artifacts working in concert. As with most, if not all, such lived experiences and practices in our lives, it was not something that could be learned through a banking concept of education. Rather, it could only be done through community inquiry as part of a community of practice, which itself is rooted within the apprenticeship model of learning in which students study with master craftspeople.
I am first generation American, first generation English-as-first-language speaker, and first generation college graduate, let alone PhD. And yet, as I advanced through university and worked professionally the last two and a half decades within the university, I have found some aspects of the methodological landscape to be something I knew of, and practiced in part, even during my early years of work in that family community. While different perspectives may be incorporated, and while they may use different terms and practices, the research process is incorporated into many different disciplines beyond the academic realm. Still, it is in the academic disciplines that special emphasis has been given to identifying and practicing the perspectives and assumptions underlying our research paradigms. It has proven an extraordinarily valuable resource in addition to my apprenticeship learning, opening up new avenues for exploration, advancement, fine-tuning, and new discoveries of practice and knowledge.
Table 1. Meta-theoretical assumptions behind the three research paradigms.
|Reason for research||To discover regularities and causal laws so that people can explain, predict and control events and processes.||To describe and understand phenomena in the social world and their meanings in context.||To empower people to change their conditions by unmasking and exposing hidden forms of oppression, false beliefs and commonly held myths.|
|Ontology – the nature and existence of social reality||Assumes an ordered and stable reality exists out there waiting to be discovered, irrespective of an observer.||Assumes reality is socially constructed, fluid and fragile, and exists as people experience it and assign meaning to it.||Transcends objective-subjective poles and assumes reality is socially constructed but nevertheless perceived as objectively existing.|
|Epistemology – the nature and the ways of knowing||Takes an instrumental approach to knowledge: knowledge enables people to master and control events. Knowledge represents reality, is stable and additive; statements about reality are true only if they are repeatedly not empirically falsified.||Takes a practical approach to knowledge; aims to include as much evidence about the subject, the research process and context as possible to enable understanding of others’ lifeworlds and experiences, and how the researchers came to understand them.||Takes a dialectical approach to knowledge. Knowledge enables people to see hidden forms of control, domination and oppression, which empowers them to seek change and reform existing conditions and social order.|
|The logic of scientific explanation||The dominant logic of inquiry is hypothetic-deductive: hypothesized relations among variables (logically derived from causal laws or theories) are empirically tested in a way that can be repeated by others.||The dominant logic of inquiry is inductive and develops idiographic descriptions and explanations based on studies of people and their actions in context; explanations need to make sense to those being studied as well as to the researchers and their community.||The logic of inquiry can be deductive and inductive but also abductive, seeking creative leaps and revealing hidden forces or structures that help people understand their ways of changing them.|
|Ethics and claims about values and normative reasoning concerning with what ‘ought’ to be||Assumes both natural and social sciences are objective and value-free, operating separately from social and power structures; ideally positivist researchers are detached from the topic studied and collect value-free facts.||Questions the possibility of value-neutral science and a value-free research; values are seen as embedded in all human actions (including researchers) and hence are inevitably a part of everything we study, without the judging of one set of values as better than another.||Any research is a moral-political and value-based activity; critical researchers explicitly declare and reflect on their value position(s) and provide arguments for their normative reasoning.|
Key Takeaways: Purposes of Research Paradigms
- Behind all of our electronics and programming code, and much of traditional scientific research, stands deductive reasoning, also known as deductive logic. The goal in this paradigm is to produce and continuously adapt predictable, reliable, anticipatable, and controllable events and processes.
- Boolean logic brings together one or more propositions into simple Yes/No, True/False, or 1/0 statements.
- Boolean logic moves from more general to very specific in a top-down logic, in which a conclusion is reached deductively, narrowing the range under consideration until only the conclusion is left.
- The ordering of our Boolean logic tests matters!
- Within a sociotechnical framing of technologies, the continuous changes of our technological tools are events and processes of contingency, which are not fully predictable. Case study analysis and situated evaluation use inductive reasoning to develop interpretive understandings of complex social phenomena.
- While inductive reasoning and interpretive paradigms generally do not serve in the building of the physical technical system, they are essential to meta-design, in which users become co-designers during the formal design process, and throughout ongoing use of a product.
- Evaluation of “it” moves from the product generally, or even the idealization of that product in design thinking terms, to the innovation-in-use, a situation-specific use of the product by individuals and cohorts.
- Within a critical sociotechnical framing of technologies, deductive reasoning in support of the physical construction of a product and inductive reasoning in support of meta-design and innovation-in-use are both essential, but not sufficient. It is necessary to also incorporate moral and ethical questioning to unmask and expose hidden forms of oppression, false beliefs, and commonly held myths. To do so, abductive reasoning is also used, bringing together the best resources at hand to attempt creative leaps in understanding.
- Critical research requires work in community, with community, and for community using methods such as participatory action research and participant observation to apply a dialectic approach to knowledge.
- As the intersectionality of individuals brings together oppressed and oppressors in cycles of action-reflection, the resulting new understanding of reality serves to bring forward new starting points for deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning in support of meta-design and innovation-in-use of sociotechnical artifacts.
- Knowledge is not static or individualistic. At its best, culturally responsive, sustaining pedagogy using a critical sociotechnical lens works to foster and incorporate a dynamic, synergistic relationship between the cultures of home, community, schools/universities, library/museum spaces, for-profit/not-for-profit institutions, and many other co-exploration spaces.
Sources for further investigation:
- Bruce, Bertram C., Andee Rubin, and Junghyun An. “Situated Evaluation of Socio-Technical Systems.” In Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems, edited by Brian Whitworth and Aldo de Moor, 2: 685–98. Information Science Reference. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2009. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/9710.
- Cecez-Kecmanovic, Dubravka, and Mary Anne Kennan. “The Methodological Landscape.” In Research Methods: Information, Systems, and Contexts, edited by Kirsty Williamson and Graeme Johanson, Second Edition., 127–55, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102220-7.00005-4.
- Fischer, Gerhard, and Thomas Herrmann. “Socio-Technical Systems: A Meta-Design Perspective.” International Journal for Sociotechnology and Knowledge Development 3, no. 1 (2011): 1–33. https://doi.org/10.4018/jskd.2011010101. Also available at https://l3d.colorado.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Published-JOURNAL-version.pdf.
- Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” American Educational Research Journal 32, no. 3 (September 1995): 465–91. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312032003465.
- Milner, H. Richard. “Race, Culture, and Researcher Positionality: Working Through Dangers Seen, Unseen, and Unforeseen.” Educational Researcher 36, no. 7 (October 2007): 388–400. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X07309471.
- Rodgers, Carol R. “Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking.” Teachers College Record 104, no. 4 (June 2002): 842–66. http://www.canr.msu.edu/bsp/uploads/files/Reading_Resources/Defining_Reflection.pdf.
The Meta-Theoretical Landscape in Practice
Since its release in 2015, Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants has been an ongoing source for expanding my own meta-theoretical landscape. As I recommend this book to new generations of readers and listeners, their response is universally the same. In the context of this text, her chapters “Asters and Goldenrod” and “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” especially highlight ways in which Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of the more-than-human persons around us complement each other. Together, this diversity of knowledge and experience enriches and greatly expands our reading of the world, and of the word as part of action and critical reflection praxis.
“Asters and Goldenrod” brings forward the ways in which our cultural knowledge and wealth is taken away from us, to be replaced by dominant paradigms and ways of being and doing. We lose a core part of who we are and what we can be in order to be that which we are told to be. It is a process of removing parts of our humanity and pushing us to be a disposable thing.
“Learning the Grammar of Animacy” highlights how the subjects around us—the living persons typically beyond that which we can conceive to exist—can and need to serve as wise elders. Listening to them can lead to creative leaps of understanding. And so it was for Kimmerer, as she discovered that the walls keeping her from learning her cultural language, Potawatomi, were ones of language, and specifically the English language. In Potawatomi, seventy percent of the words are verbs, indicating the animacy of those around us. Plants and streams alike are animate, thinking, feeling entities. This compares to English, which is primarily noun-based, and which objectifies much around us, turning it into a thing.
For us to “rapidly shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society,” as we are called to do by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, we need something beyond what our existing language and landscapes can often provide. It does not mean we must put aside who we are, how we live, what we value, and so much more. But it does mean we need to enter into new communities of practice, ones that help us address the shortcomings in our own meta-theoretical landscapes, even as we bring forward our own expertise and knowledge that has built from these landscapes. Often, it is not an “either-or” work, but a “both-and” proposition that truly helps us reach ever greater individual and collective fulfillment. Lastly, it’s essential that this is done in ways that push for greater justice for all, and especially for those most pushed to the margins and those who are oppressed.
To finish this chapter, let’s explore one further example of the meta-theoretical landscape in practice today, as helpfully summarized in René Ostberg Encyclopedia Britannica page on “transhumanism.” Since being introduced by Julian Huxley in his 1957 essay “Transhumanism,” there has been a growing number of organizations, schools, and business entrepreneurs exploring ways in which scientific advances can facilitate the extension of human life and overcome human limitations through enhanced human cognition and augmented capabilities. Institutes, associations, and individuals have worked to develop statements, books, and voices building on the vision, core concepts, and principles as different branches of thought have emerged within transhumanism. A landmark example can be found in Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), in which the distinctions between man and machine are blurred as computers develop operational capabilities equivalent to those of the human brain. Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk have gone on to launch a range of research and development companies dedicated to various aspects of transhumanism-centered technology development and diffusion, through a range of biotechnologies, brain chips, animal cloning, exoskeletons, and even space travel and colonization.
While there are many ways in which we can move from an “either-or” to a “both-and” proposition, there are also those times when we need to explore the deeper logic and ethics underlying scientific explanation, and the central claims about values and normative reasoning which together shape research and development. Data mining, analytics, visualization, and curation can be done in many different ways using various forms of logic and ethical assumptions. Information in the form of data goes on to underpin vast initiatives that shape information access, management, and use, which further shapes analysis, design, maintenance, and evolution of information infrastructures. As we move further along the data, information, knowledge, wisdom pyramid, the logic and ethics underlying scientific explanation and their central claims about values and normative reasoning further shape the creation of knowledge. They do this either in ways that allow a few to exercise power over the many, or in ways that allow the advancement of power within each and between all as part of active works of social justice. In his 2004 Foreign Policy “Transhumanism” article, Francis Fukuyama asks a couple of provocative questions: “If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow?” He goes on to note, “Transhumanism’s advocates think they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better. But do they really comprehend ultimate human goods?”
In WNYC Studio’s On the Media “Salvation Through Technology” from January 18, 2023, Brooke Gladstone brings back a 2021 segment in which she interviewed Meghan O’Gieblyn, author of God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, taking us through her journey from her fundamentalist Evangelical church roots and Bible college training to her extensive reading about technology. It led her to an obsession with transhumanism in which most identify as atheists with a worldview based on materialism. Over time, O’Gieblyn began to see in transhumanism a theoretically plausible offering which included “basically everything that a religious worldview had once offered me, but it was doing so through science and technology.” Bringing these two parts of her history together has helped her explore ways in which science and technology often recapitulate old spiritual narratives in ideas such as transhumanism, exposing the shared assumptions of Christian creationists and transhumanist tech leaders. But this isn’t limited just to the transhumanist space, as more generally, the growing ubiquity of artificial intelligence is “almost like we’re making the physical material world conscious, again, much like this old animus cosmology where we believe that spirits lived in rocks and trees and that the world was alive and that we could have social relationships with physical objects.”
This shared assumption of Christian creationists and transhumanist tech leaders is distinct from Kimmerer’s call for us to bring into consideration a grammar of animacy as a complement to our Western scientific explorations. It takes time and effort to unpack the ontology, epistemology, ethics, and claims about values and normative reasoning concerning what “ought” to be that also inform the research paradigms informing our works; these shape the deductive, inductive, and abductive logic within the various scientific explanations and their applications within our ongoing professional research and development activities. As we develop programming code to address important issues of the day, are we doing so in a person-oriented way, or in ways that seek to make the technology become person?
As critical researchers, we need to explicitly declare and reflect on our value position(s) and provide arguments for our normative reasoning. This can only be done through conversation with those different from us as part of both action and reflection phases of our person-centered community inquiry. In so doing, we move from an exclusive focus on the question of inquiry within the moment, to also open opportunities to unpack further the unseen and unforeseen normative reasoning which is shaping our actions and our reflections on those actions.
By demystifying these methodologies and introducing new ideas, we seek to further advance our ability to consider and tell counterstories.
In the technical session, we will see how the positivist paradigm of research is fundamental to both electronics and modern programming.
This session helps us better explore the meta-theoretical assumptions and research paradigms that shape our sociotechnical environment and the social and technical products that arise from our hands-on activities that put these assumptions and paradigms into practice. What within your Professional Journal Reflections from last session has helped you move into this session? What has proved problematic, requiring further codification and decodification in dialogue with others so as to more closely align to the valued beings and doings of all?
- Kimmerer, Robin. “Asters and Goldenrod” and “The Grammar of Animacy.” In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, 39–47. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013. (May be available through EBSCOhost eBook Collection)
- NPR, “Main Character of the Day,” March 14, 2023. “Neurotech could connect our brains to computers. What could go wrong, right?” https://www.npr.org/2023/03/14/1163494707/neurotechnology-privacy-data-tracking-nita-farahany-battle-for-brain-book (Listen to the interview of Nita Farahany, professor of law and philosophy at Duke Law School, conducted by NPR’s Manuela López Restrepo. Link also provides some associated summary text.)
- Wolske, Martin, Colin Rhinesmith, and Beth Kumar. “Community Informatics Studio: Designing Experiential Learning to Support Teaching, Research, and Practice.” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 55, no. 2 (April 2014): 166–77. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/48952.
- Cecez-Kecmanovic, Dubravka, and Mary Anne Kennan. “The Methodological Landscape.” In Research Methods: Information, Systems, and Contexts, edited by Kirsty Williamson and Graeme Johanson, Second Edition, 127–55, Elsevier, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102220-7.00005-4.
Key Technical Terms
- The importance of when working with , , , and
- , , and other signals and their relationship to
- The relationship between and signals
Professional Journal Reflections:
- Take a few minutes to review your Professional Journal Reflection(s) from last session. Reflect on ways this is a new reading of these reflective words and worlds one session later. How have these reflections shaped you? How have you shaped your reading of the world and word within these reflections?
- In what ways have deductive ontological and epistemological reasoning and Boolean scientific logic contributed to your action reflection praxis, individually and within your community of practice, since your last reflection(s)?
- In what ways have inductive reasoning, meta-design, and innovation-in-use, along with associated ontological and epistemological reasoning, contributed to your action reflection praxis, individually and within your community of practice, since your last reflection(s)?
- In what ways have abductive reasoning and moral and ethical questioning individually and within your community of practice helped to unmask and expose hidden forms of oppression, false beliefs, and commonly held myths, thereby contributing to your action reflection praxis since your last reflection(s)?
- Bringing these together, how has this influenced your hands-on coding to build a Toolbox Trumpet? How has the design and implementation of the sociotechnical artifacts used in these hands-on works shaped your own hands-on work?
- Cecez-Kecmanovic, Dubravka, and Mary Anne Kennan. “Table 1. Meta-theoretical assumptions behind the three research paradigms.” From “The Methodological Landscape.” In Research Methods: Information, Systems, and Contexts, edited by Kirsty Williamson and Graeme Johanson, 127–55. Elsevier, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102220-7.00005-4. ↵
- Ostberg, René. “transhumanism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 Nov. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/transhumanism. Accessed 13 March 2023. ↵
A form of algebra used in mathematics, electronics, and computer hardware and software. At its base, all values are found to be either true or false using the Boolean operators "OR," "AND," and "NOT."
A command that determines under which specific coding pathway should be executed based on the occurrence of another sequence in the program.
A unit of code defined by its role within a more general code structure. To execute the function, it is provided one or more inputs, and produces a concrete result. This result may, but is not necessarily required to, be returned back to the caller of the function.
A convenient name to represent numbers that change from time to time. Look at the top of your smartphone, and you may see the battery percentage charge remaining. A program exists on the smartphone to read this variable and provide a visual representation of it. Variables are often used within code to evaluate changes in patterns to determine which series of code should be executed at a given moment.
A control flow statement provides a choice between two or more paths, and defines the specific sequence in which individual statements within that path should be executed or evaluated.
An electronic device using a program of instructions to collect, store, process, and transmit data. Many of our daily use devices, including automobiles, mobile phones, home routers connecting a building's network to the wider Internet, the growing number of "smart" internet-connected devices, such as watches; building heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC); light and sound systems; and our laptops and desktops, are all built using computers. While some use a more significant combination of integrated circuit processors and potentially multiple printed circuit boards, increasingly, these parts are more tightly integrated into a single printed circuit board and a reduced number of integrated circuits. Depending on design and use specifications and marketing, these may be referred to as microcomputers, microcontrollers, microprocessors, or system on a chip (SoC). The Raspberry Pi is a general-purpose microcomputer with integrated system-on-chip central processor and other microprocessors.
An integrated circuit that interfaces with one or more other devices on a printed circuit board. Besides the CPU, this can include input/output controller(s) and a graphic processing unit (GPU) controller. The Raspberry Pi Model 3 has two controllers, the system-on-chip (SoC) controller that includes the CPU and computer memory, and a controller interfacing with the wired Ethernet and four USB ports.
Specific to electronics, a digital signal is a representation of a physical quantity expressed as a series of the digits 0 and 1, that is, binary. The range of decimal numbers representing physical quantities in our work, for instance 12 seconds, is converted to a binary equivalent--in this case, 1100. In this illustration, the dots along the analog sine wave are data points collected to create the digital representation of the physical quantities.
Binary notation is based on the base-2 numeral system using only two symbols. The symbols used are the digits 0 and 1. Binary is the standard notation for Boolean true or false logic tests. This is in contrast to the base-10 numeral system commonly used in the English language, and which uses the digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.
Specific to electronics, an analog signal is any continuous electric pulse of varying amplitude. If we view a tone playing from a speaker as a sine wave, an increase in amplitude is equivalent to a louder sound from the speaker. An increase in the number of waves within a certain period of time is equivalent to a higher-pitched tone (perhaps from a middle C note to a middle E note). In these graphs of two different sine waves, the left sine wave plot shows increasing amplitude of the same tone while, the right sine wave plot shows a stable tone held at stable amplitude.