Alicia McLean

Hacking the Home: creative electronics @ VIVO Media Arts

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Workshop @ VIVO Media Arts that empowers youth by re-imagining their relationship with technology

Words by Alicia McLean
Photos by Sheng Ho 

In 2013, we tap at touchscreens, type out text and download apps. We use electronic systems to maneuver our city by the most efficient route, following plotted pathways. We are given a false sense of accomplishment by adjusting limited settings, while software is sheathed with operable interfaces, hardware is straight-jacketed by plastic, further protected by Otter cases and stylish laptop bags. Even in our own homes, all but the most superficial of adaptations are relegated to electricians, plumbers and carpenters for fear of upsetting the twisted organs of pipes and wires. We constantly come close to screens, painted lines, concrete and drywall, without ever entering their hidden reality.  In Hacking the Home: creative electronics, these relationships will be reimagined by Youth aged 13 to 18. This is the first year of these workshops, held in the bastion of interactive arts that is Vancouver’s VIVO Media Arts Centre, and they are a must for the inquisitive young mind.

Hacking The Home youth camp at VIVO, 2013, Vancouver BC, photo by Sheng Ho

Hacking the Home instructors Jesse Scott and Brady Marks joked about the Communist Manifesto and Neo-Marxism as we delved into the nature of their workshop. Brady references “the maker movement, which is about taking power over your means of production,” and applies it to the devices and technology which we have become so intertwined with, yet largely alienated from. This will be actualized by each student choosing and designing a tech project to improve their home. Examples range from a window-opening robot to an alarm clock that tells you the weather before you open the blinds, a personal doorbell to a security system that texts you when a stranger enters your room. Jesse describes the projects as “fanciful, Ferris Bueller-style experiments with technology, based on design,” while Brady notes, “the attitude can be applied at any level. You can deep-fry donuts or get really geeky.”

Hacking The Home youth camp at VIVO, 2013, Vancouver BC, photo by Sheng Ho

Students will be working with barebones Raspberry Pi computers- one of the mouthwatering distributions of Linux.  In the true nature of Linux, the board is entirely open source. You can change all of the software, or even download the hardware schematic, change it and send to a factory to build your version. Brady is visibly excited; “There’s enough momentum in the open source, open hardware community that children can start to do this.” The robust fragility of the circuit board, pimpled by inputs and outputs, makes me consider the distance we feel from the basic components of such intimate devices without the gift wrapping of keyboard, mousepad and screen.

Because of Copyright law, lack of specialized knowledge, and the idea of technological determinism, people feel removed from technology, though it exists so intimately with our bodies. Brady devalues technological determinism which, she claims, is “when we say this is how the technology works, we have to adjust. Which is untrue. A human designed it that way and if it’s open, you can go in and change that design… we recognize that was just a decision by one human being and there’s no reason why another human being can’t make another decision.”

The workshops aim to improve the participants’ digital literacy and to interrogate the spaces they live their lives in. Jesse notes, “Tech is a tool. You can be a slave to it when you have a limited cognitive understanding of how things work, and the more you drill down into the layers, the more you realize when and how these decisions are being made for you.”

Hacking The Home youth camp at VIVO, 2013, Vancouver BC, photo by Sheng Ho

Given the name of the workshop and the overall ethos, hacking works its way into the conversation. Brady and Jesse remind me of the essence of this much-misinterpreted word. A hacker is someone who knows a system well, knows how to modify and improve it, even repurpose it. Brady says, “the original hacker ethos was not about illegal activity, but just about knowing a system… achieving an outcome within a system that isn’t the ‘right’ way to do it but does work.”  

They ask, “if we have all these tools, why can’t we reconfigure the home?” The workshops are meant to be fun and imaginative, and Brady quotes Parkour’s unconventional, highly physical movement through urban space as an inspiration. “Free movement, free running. People playing with the environment as if they have a skateboard but just navigating their environment in a playful way.”

Hacking The Home youth camp at VIVO, 2013, Vancouver BC, photo by Sheng Ho

Jesse speaks of technological decisions driven by market capital. He believes in the importance of “designing permissiveness and openness and talking with kids about hacking a semi-open or semi-closed system… youth are only going to become more entwined with technology and we want them to be able to build the future, with good design concepts, the right tools, and the ethics of keeping things open. A generation that makes better decisions than we did about it.”  Brady recognizes the power afforded by this kind of knowledge and hopes that wherever the students end up, “they will know the value of keeping their intellectual work open so that it will serve their community and allow that hackability. So maybe that’s our secret agenda, they will be empowered and share that power.”

VIVO’s characteristic mingling of technical skills and purposeful ideology mesh perfectly in the goals of Hacking the Home. Inspiring young people to think outside the box (or even deep inside it) and to look differently at the “built spaces” surrounding us. Questioning possibilities and corporate authority. Playful improvement. Teaching the ethos of open source and sharing. Strengthening the collective bank of knowledge to raise technical competence and intellectual consciousness of the social organism. Doesn’t sound like a bad vision to me.


Final Exhibition

This program ends with an exhibition where family and friends will have the opportunity to see what has been created during the week. This final exhibition and screening will take place Friday, August 16, 4:30-6 PM at VIVO, 1965 Main Street, Vancouver.

Hacking the Home: creative electronics
August 12 – 16
9 am – 4 pm
(Final Exhibition Friday, August 16, 4:30-6)
$565 + gst
Full and Partial Scholarships still available!


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