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On Designing Interesting Tools

My brother recently introduced me to the Holga, which is a low-end Hong Kong product that emerged in the early 80s to make cameras available to working-class Chinese.

Aesthetically, what’s interesting about the Holga is that its cheap design gives rise to a host of imperfections in the structure of the camera itself. Light periodically leaks in from the outside, switches on the body of the camera are periodically nonfunctional, the camera itself often scratches the negatives as the film unwinds, among other things.

The odd, random distortions that these defects create on the film has cultivated alot of interest among photographers, and a pretty enthusiastic community of artists has developed around it. The defects are unique to each camera, and there’s alot of customization that’s done on them.

The Holga is, of course, not unique at all in this respect. In the world of film, it is cultural cousins with the LOMO, Diana, and the continuing community surrounding the instant-developing Polaroid camera (like the SX-70 and its ilk). In the video world, there’s (most famously), the PXL-2000.

Varied, imperfect tools that generate eccentric, unexpected effects lay the groundwork for nerdiness. (this is just a corollary of other nerd communities, think: wine, music nerd-dom, Magic cards, hardware, etc) They make a tool interesting in the sense that there are many subtleties to be learned, unanticipated effects that cannot be controlled, and that each tool has a unique personality.

Mastery of an interesting tool (as opposed to what you might call a streamlined tool), then, depends on more than just a well-developed technical knowledge about the tool in general. (like you would learning how to use a keyboard) There’s a need to develop a less well-defined familiarity with how your specific tool performs (as in the case of computer owners that learn how to compensate with their machine’s increasingly dysfunctional hardware).

And, unlike a streamlined tool, there is a great deal of randomness that ensures that one never really masters it. To that end, the user’s approach to the interesting device is different: not so much precision control to achieve a particular effect, but rough approximation to achieve a generally expected outcome.

In the case of the Holga, its eccentricity emerges incidentally from the need to keep costs low, but I think an interesting question is whether or not interestingness itself can be the product of intentional design. How one might go about developing tools that are interesting in this way? How do you, in a way, organize for random defect?

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Building Hacker Spaces

Been doing alot of thinking lately about the creation of successful cultural spaces (For Boston SCS and the PoPoMo Manifesto) when I happened on the Hacker Foundation’s Hacker Spaces initiative.

There was actually a panel on this issue during the 5th HOPE Conference a few years back. A fairly interesting listen.

Audio and Visual.

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