Technology TED Fellows

Tinker, tailor, solderer: Fellows Friday with Catarina Mota

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Catarina Mota

Open source hardware advocate, maker, teacher and scholar Catarina Mota (watch her TED talk) has devoted a decade to considering why we need to get our hands back on technology — so we can learn how to shape it before it shapes us.

How did you come to be involved in open-source hardware?

The way I arrived here wasn’t a straight line. In college, I studied communication sciences with a major in film. A lot of people who end up in hardware and tinkering seem to come from filmmaking backgrounds. Then, when I was looking for a master’s program in film, I found out about the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU — where people work with electronics and computer vision and such. The first time I walked in there, I still thought I was going to make movies, but then it felt as if the mothership was calling out to me. That was my first introduction to programming, making and all those things.

So I have this master’s degree, which is nothing like an engineering degree, but it does teach you the basics of making with technology. Back then, there were no hackerspaces, so once I graduated, I didn’t really have a place to work in hardware. I started working more with software until 2008, when I joined a PhD program in communication sciences. I decided to research the confluence of open-source hardware, digital fabrication tools and maker culture.

At that point, we were already seeing the wave of hackerspaces begin to spread across Europe and the US, but there wasn’t one in Lisbon, where I lived, so I started one. It’s called altLab. Right now, I live in New York, so I’m a member of one of the hackerspaces here, NYC Resistor.

In the last four years, the open source hardware community has expanded like crazy and it keeps growing. It’s very exciting!

“Step one, put some parts on it.” Photo: Flickr/wwwardo/NYCResistor

What are some of the benefits of open source hardware?

One is the possibility of local production. In order to produce or repair anything locally you need plans, and open source makes available the instructions that allow you to adapt or build something from scratch. It also gives you instructions on how to repair things. This can help create employment: entrepreneurs can take advantage of open source designs, modify and manufacture them to meet local needs, and grow their businesses by training others, creating local jobs.

There’s also an environmental benefit when economies shift to locally sourced material, and from the emphasis on repair, which promotes longer product life cycles. Norton, Mochon and Ariely wrote a paper called the IKEA effect. What they suggest is that people develop a relationship with things they build themselves, even if they didn’t design them themselves. This relationship means that you’re less likely to throw things away, you’re more likely to repair them. The other side of this is that, because tech is getting so cheap and it’s becoming increasingly easier to make things, we may start to look at objects as disposable.

But to me, the major benefit is education. More and more, devices are becoming black boxes. People used to understand computers and think of them as tools because they understood how they worked, and now we don’t. Whether we like it or not, technology shapes the way we think, the way we communicate, the way we act, the way we learn. So if we buy a computer or phone and we can’t modify or even understand how they work, our thoughts and actions are dictated by this interface design that we have nothing to do with. We need to understand the objects we use because if we can’t shape them, they will shape us. There are already so many things in our lives that we’ve changed to adapt to the technology we have available.

Why can’t we just leave it to the experts?

Because the experts are skilled at making computers, but they’re not experts in what we need. We know what we need. That takes me to another advantage of open source: research and development. It’s very difficult and expensive to do proper market research. You can never know exactly what your users want. With open source, the way it’s organized, people will tell your company what they want. And not only that: they will prototype and design it for you. This is the classic open source story. So if I buy a device that’s open source, I can modify it and adapt it to my needs. Instead of keeping it to myself, I think, “Well, others might as well benefit from this too,” so I put the plans online so that everyone, including the original creator, benefits. If this is a feature that a lot of people want, the manufacturer can incorporate it into the next production round.

Muscle wire. Photo: Catarina Mota

How did you get interested in smart materials?

Around the same time we were starting the Lisbon hackerspace, I met Kirsty Boyle and we decided to collaborate on an art installation that required several smart materials. But as soon as we began researching it, we realized two things. One is that they are extremely hard to source in small quantities. They’re available on a B2B basis, but if you just want a little bit and you’re not a company, they’re very, very hard to obtain.

What sorts of things?

Things like muscle wire, which is a wire that contracts when an electrical current runs through it; pigments that change color at a given temperature, or when exposed to sunlight — basically new materials, that have special properties, coming out of corporate and university laboratories. Even the few materials that we could acquire were extremely hard to use because no instructions were provided. We’re talking about hi-tech materials, so it’s not very obvious how they’re supposed to be used. Because we both believe in open source, we started a project called Open Materials, an online platform for sharing information about materials in general, but with a special focus on smart materials. The main idea is that we should also open source materials themselves, so we can have better control and make more and better things.

What is a hackerspace typically equipped with? What do you have in there, and what can you do?

There are around 500 hackerspaces worldwide, and they’re all completely different, depending on what they are and how long they’ve been around. The younger the hackerspace, the less they tend to have. The older ones have had more time to accumulate stuff. My hackerspace is very, very well equipped. We have lots of 3D printers, because we also happen to be the hackerspace MakerBot was born in. So we get free 3D printers.

Many years ago, the original members pooled their money together and bought the most-used tool so far, which is a laser cutter. So that’s a big draw. And then we have all sorts of shop tools — drill presses, angle grinders, standard wood and metal shop tools. We have little CNC mills, which allow us to make electronic boards or small objects — and then all sorts of tools to work with electronics, from soldering irons to multimeters, calipers, etc. We have a lot of craft tools as well: a manual Intaglio press — so totally old-school — that we love very much, knitting machines, sewing machines, stuff to work with paper and many other things. It’s basically everything you’d need to work on small hardware and crafts projects.

The one thing we don’t have, but that a few other hackerspaces do, is a heavy industry side. For example, a few blocks from NYC Resistor, there are two other hackerspaces. One, Madagascar Institute, is all about heavy industry. They do heavy-duty metal work, welding and things like that which require a special space and special permits.

The Jeltone piano.

What do you most enjoy making?

I like making things that have practical applications, but what I like making the most are teaching tools. So I make little things to be able to teach other people. Instead of just giving them text, I will make things that show how that material works, and someone looking at it can understand. So all of the circuitry is exposed. I try to make it really clean and simple. All the connections and materials are very obvious and straightforward. Let’s call them little physical manifestations of tutorials.

Do you make art?

Once in a while I’ll work on an art project. One of the things I like making the most are electronic projects with food and paper. Last year, my collaborators Ranjit Bhatnagar, Astrida Valigorsky and Mimi Hui and I made a piano that can actually play but that is mostly made out of Jell-O. You can play it and eat it at the same time. And based on that, I then made a version out of paper. It’s basically a cardboard box that you open by pulling off the lid and it turns into a toy piano.

Do you work on projects that contribute to development?

So far, I’ve done mostly things that serve to teach. But I’m currently on the board of directors of the Open Source Hardware Association, a brand new non-profit to educate people about open source hardware. We also want to promote open-source hardware in humanitarian aid contexts. Akiba, who was involved with post-Fukushima radiation detector project — where the open source community in Asia came together to design radiation detectors for families near the disaster site — is also working with UNESCO to devise weather monitors for Africa and other humanitarian aid projects. So my idea is to start a sub-group within the Open Source Hardware Association that specifically raises funds, makes connections and provides activists and humanitarian aid workers with the hardware they need to do their work.

Dimmer. Photo: Catarina Mota

Is there a lot of interest from the general public about making and hacking?

Yes, absolutely, more and more. There are Maker Faires — where makers of all sorts of things from robots to spirits to knitwear to electronic gadgets gather to swap knowledge — popping up all over the United States and around the world. People are starting to discover and buy 3D printers and figure out novel things to do with them. The Maker movement gives people something to do besides consume, and the open source movement gives them the tools with which to do that. It’s a matter of empowerment, creating and doing and looking for problems to solve rather than always looking for what you can buy. Makers love to solve problems. And why share? Because others will recognize your work as well, and everyone likes that.

There are those who say that open source could never be economically self-sustaining. How does the open source hardware economy work?

It works because bits are free but atoms cost money. So if the iPhone were open source, you could in theory build your own, but it would take a very long time to do it because it’s a very complex piece of technology. You’d have to source parts on your own that Apple as a company can source much more cheaply because they do it in bulk. So that’s how open source businesses work. They source all the parts, they publish all the plans, they teach you how to build your own. But for the average user it’s still cheaper and easier to buy the kits from them.

The other side of the equation is that in reality everything can be copied. Everything can be cloned. It doesn’t matter if it’s proprietary or not. In New York’s Chinatown, there are iPod clones all over. It has nothing to do with whether it’s patented technology. So if everything can potentially be cloned, you might as well do it the right way. What this means is that companies are going to compete not based on the exclusive rights over a design, but on quality and service. So the company that wins is the one that offers the best product at the best price, and has the best customer service. So far, even though there are super cheap clones, people tend to buy from the original manufacturer.

Magnetic paint. Photo: Catarina Mota

Why do people sometimes have such a strong reaction to the idea of open source?

We live in an information society, and we’ve been told over and over again that information and knowledge are the most precious things we have, the one thing we have that we can trade for food and other things. So people tend to think sharing this knowledge is going to be bad for them, that they’re going to lose. It’s been infused in our education, this way of being in this world: that by holding exclusive rights over something is the only way to get ahead, the only way of measuring value. I completely agree that knowledge and information are the most precious goods we have right now, and that’s precisely why they should be open to all, if we are to progress as a society.

What has your Fellows experience been like so far?

I’m still wrapping my head around it. When I first applied I had no idea what to expect, but I’d say the most important thing I got out of it was just this understanding of the amazing work that people are doing which I would not have otherwise known about. And a permanent sense of awe. People like Max Little, with his Parkinson’s disease voice detector, Alexander McLean‘s work in prisons, Ola Orekunrin‘s work with medical emergency transportation… There was a lot of crying going on at TEDGlobal 2012 as we heard each others stories.

And of course I know that these things are happening in the world, but actually meeting the people who are on the front lines, who are making things happen and risking their lives and giving everything they have to help others was just mind-blowing. I realized today, just before talking to you, that I didn’t know what I wanted to work on next, and now I know: open-source humanitarian aids. And that was all thanks to meeting the Fellows.