Mark Pilgrim’s post Tinkerer’s Sunset laments the increasing tendency of Apple devices to be locked for development unless you have a Mac, XCode, an iPhone simulator, and $99 for an auto-expiring developer certificate. He goes on to write about his introduction to programming as a child:

But you don’t become a hacker by programming; you become a hacker by tinkering. It’s the tinkering that provides that sense of wonder. You have to jump out of the system, tear down the safety gates, peel away the layers of abstraction that the computer provides for the vast majority of people who don’t want to know how it all works. It’s about using the Copy ][+ sector editor to learn how the disk operating system boots, then modifying it so the computer makes a sound every time it reads a sector from the disk. Or displaying a graphical splash screen on startup before it lists the disk catalog and takes you to that BASIC prompt. Or copying a myriad of wondrous commands from the Beagle Bros. Peeks & Pokes Chart and trying to figure out what the fuck I had just done. Just for the hell of it. Because it was fun. Because it scared my parents. Because I absolutely had to know how it all worked.

I was something of a tinkerer as a tween and teen too, although at a more superficial level. I liked to change the colours of the desktop, I set up a different boot sequence because our 486 didn’t have the memory to run both Windows 3.1 and Doom II, and so on. But Pilgrim’s throwaway line about “scared my parents” struck me, because this did scare my parents.

My parents weren’t scared of a loss of control over me in the way that, I think, Pilgrim is implying. They were specifically scared: scared I’d make our family’s shared computer, which they’d barely been able to afford, unusable for everyone (and I did on a few occasions). And they certainly didn’t know, and neither did I, that tinkering with it was any kind of investment in getting jobs in the future. That’s what university is for, and the computer was an investment in me having the computer literacy I’d need to pass university. (The web was in the public eye by then, this was the 1990s, but at the time “computer literacy” meant word processing skills.)

That kind of tinkering isn’t accessible unless you can do it to a device you own, whether because it has no other user, you don’t especially care about those other users, or because you’ve been specifically told that you’re more important than those other users. I didn’t have any gadgets that met those criteria. It requires money, leisure time, and people who recognise the value of you having such a relationship with your toys. I don’t have brothers, so I can’t say whether or not a brother would have been implicitly granted the ability to break our shared gadgets for his own education in the way I wasn’t: some women do report this.

One of the early things I did when I started earning money above my basic living needs (in 2000 some university students could get computing jobs that met this criteria) was buy my very own computer, and it was worth it many times over for all the Linux installs, Windows installs, SMTP config and similar I did to it.

What about you? Did you have a tinkerable toy (in the broad sense of ‘toy’) as a child that you were granted licence to tinker with? How about as an adult? How about now? Or alternatively, have you been put in second place while your useful tool was given to someone else to take apart and put together at their own leisure? And how has this influenced your geek journey?

Update: If you want to discuss the general issue that Pilgrim raised in a way that isn’t either (a) your personal tinkering experiences or (b) a feminist discussion of tinkering, can you put it on your own blogs or in Pilgrim’s comments please? It will derail this thread otherwise.

26 thoughts on “Tinkering

  1. coeli

    I only did a little tinkering with the family Apple ][e when I was a kid. I learned a bit of BASIC but was more interested in playing text adventures. My parents didn’t put a lot of rules on my use of it, but I also didn’t have a clear idea of what else *could* be done with it.
    I did have a microscope, to which I subjected just about anything I could fit under the lens. That sort of thing my parents encouraged strongly. Bless them, they not only answered my questions when they could but taught me how to find information for myself.

    The day I arrived at college was also the day I got my first computer of my own, a Mac LC. I loved that thing to death. I was surprised at how fascinating it was to poke around the guts of the OS. I never did anything revolutionary with it, but I played with ResEdit and customized lots of icons, sounds, and the like. I learned both by doing and by (gasp) reading the manual, or rather a big fat book of inside tricks. I’ve used various systems since then, but I’ve never had the leisure and resources to learn any one of them as thoroughly as Mac 7.5. Tinkering was definitely the way I learned it.

  2. Dani

    I remember playing with BASIC on a TI/99-4a, then working on a TRS-80 model 4p. I had better access than most who grew-up in such a region (rural PA) due to my mother’s work teaching programming classes at a local college and managing the college’s computing systems.

    An additional tinkering aspect was the farm work. Being the eldest I got more of the chores, including equipment repair. Many of our machines were quite old and parts weren’t always available, requiring finding our own solutions. It helped that my grandfather had the tinkering way of thinking, seeing the value of automation for a labor-intensive occupation.

    I also regularly apply a phrase from my grandfather. Sure, he was talking about agriculture, but it works just as well in IT, “let the machine do the work.”

  3. j-bird

    It requires money, leisure time, and people who recognise the value of you having such a relationship with your toys.

    I’m currently studying (experimental) physics, so my current life involves a good deal of fixing, tinkering, hacking, and making. I don’t know if I’m good at it, though. I never really tinkered as a child. I think this was because it was made clear to me that we *needed* the things we owned. However, in my darker hours I can’t help wondering if it was because of a lack of curiosity — i.e., if I were really a natural scientist/engineer, either I would have had the guts to upset my parents or I would have found something small and unneeded to take apart. My much younger brother tinkered more than I did as a child, but we were better off by then and had a collection of no-longer-needed machines.

    I think my lack of tinkering may also have come from an inclination against destruction. Question: Is a natural inclination against destruction incompatible with a hacking-centered lifestyle?

    1. Lampdevil

      I think my lack of tinkering may also have come from an inclination against destruction. Question: Is a natural inclination against destruction incompatible with a hacking-centered lifestyle?

      This is a FANTASTIC question. A vivid memory came to me of sitting in the school computer lab, furious that “the guys” had once again infected most of the computers with a virus/mucked up the boot sector/otherwise rendered the computers obnoxiously inoperable. “What a bunch of jerks! They’d rather ruin the machine than DO THINGS with it!”

      I was always “doing things” on the lab comps. This was 1995-ish, and I had yet to get my parents to buy me my own PC. I was highly dependant on the computer lab to create websites, scan and edit my artwork, and chat online. Kind of weak stuff in comparison to Apple ][ hackery, but it was important to me. It was intense, learning HTML, figuring out Windows 95 shortcuts and tweaks and tricks, finding piles and piles of information about cool things… So yeah, I was royally miffed every time the lab got all messed up.

      I never saw the point in viruses and hacking and whatever else. It all looked like hooliganism. Nothing like the fun exploration that I was already doing. It wasn’t until years later that the value of such efforts dawned on me… and by then I had already blown all of my youthful energy and enthusiasm on anime fansites, electronic paper dolls, and piles and piles of art. I obviously had that urge to tinker, but had nowhere to go with it.

  4. Kat

    My father was an early-ish computer hobbyist in the 1980s. He wasn’t in a technical field but was a writer who worked at home and so he had a PC to write on. I started learning to use DOS around age 5 and when I was 8 or 9–long after most people were using early versions of Windows–my parents bought another PC from the company where my mother worked and gave it to me and my sister so I’d quit wanting to hog the other PC all the time. That computer was a 386 with 60 MB of hard drive space. I was so excited to have my own computer because now I could do the things I had learned to customize with DOS that drove my father crazy–changing the boot sequence, changing the text and background color (I believe I made it magenta on cyan) and that sort of thing.

    I only remember a few other things. One was that I had KidPix for a while as the only program on my parents’ computer. My friend taught me the word ‘fuck’ when I was 6 and told me it was a Bad Word, but I didn’t know what that meant and was afraid to ask. So a year or two later, I made a drawing in KidPix and called the file ‘fuck’, figuring that if something was a bad word, the program wouldn’t let me title it that because you know, it was bad, and the program only allowed certain things anyway. It wasn’t that smart though and let the file go through. That left me with a conundrum, though, because the hard drive on that computer was also only about 60 MB and my father would periodically go through the entire hard drive and move files onto floppies or delete them to make more room–and usually he asked me if I wanted to save something and I was afraid he’d see my Bad Word. So I had to sneakily learn to delete files on my own (the first DOS operation I learned after opening and closing a program) in order to remove the evidence.

    I didn’t really grow into a computer geek–I’m a scientist, not a computer scientist–but I think playing around with my computer (which I called Rusty) gave me enough confidence that I’ve never felt scared my technology. Most of my friends, for instance, don’t know how to install new computer components like memory and internal hard drives, but that’s something I don’t mind tinkering with and because of that, they think I’m a genius. (Not a good thing, I don’t want to be tech support!)

  5. Restructure!

    Ugh, I’ve lived with different women during college, and I was always the tech help person. Those women who were shockingly computer illiterate were told by others in strong terms that they were not allowed to tinker with the system settings, since their computers belonged to someone else.

    This is basic. In our society, it is socially acceptable to have double standards, where men have their own computer, but women are supposed to share or borrow. Why should administrative privileges be part of male privilege?

    1. Restructure!

      This lack of recognition that girls need their own computer to tinker is a pet peeve of mine. I left this comment on a Shameless blog post, where obviously non-geek feminists in the comments advocated computers as a communal resource and that children can just use the computer at the library. Me:

      However, owning your own computer is very important! If you say that libraries with computer access is sufficient, you are basically saying that computers are only for web browsing and word processing. Limiting female children to use public and family computers, while [giving] male children their own computers, is exactly what’s creating the gender divide in computer literacy and comfort with computers.

      This idea of treating girls as only users of technology instead of creators (and administrators) is so ingrained in our society. Argh!

      1. Melissa

        This idea of treating girls as only users of technology instead of creators (and administrators) is so ingrained in our society. Argh!

        Not just in technology, either. When Daddy insists girl child stays inside so she doesn’t get dirty while he does her or the family car’s oil but insists brother go outside and watch and learn… same thing. Likewise when Daddy snatches broken thing from girl child to fix it, but ‘helps’ boy child to fix his broken thing.

        This stuff didn’t actually start happening to me until I was a teenager; I was let tinker more when I was an actual child. I guess the sense of entitlement having the topics snatched from me let me be stubborn enough to persist. Others haven’t been so lucky.

        1. Kim Curry

          My Dad did insist on teaching us how to change the oil, how to change tires, I learned how to mow the lawn and do some fixing up around the house.

          But I was in college before anyone ever gave me my own Lego’s. And it didn’t matter how many times I put as #1 on my wish list, circled, underlined multiple times, and highlighted, that I wanted model spaceships to build, I never got them.

  6. ifrik

    My father bought a computer in the late 1980s and I spend a lot of time typing in programmes from computer journals – learning the basics of Pascal that way. Unfortunately I was the only one in class with a 3″ disk, while those with computer access had 5″ – so hardware excluded me from getting further involved with other. At that time my affinity to computers didn’t seem sufficient to me to actually study informatics.
    A few years later at university I bought my own computer – which needed everything including windows from disks to start with… followed briefly afterwards by taking apart a new CD drive before building it in order to spray paint the front black so that it wouldn’t look odd in my otherwise black computer case.
    Since then I had a number of second hand laptops and I’m getting quite good at getting spare parts from broken laptops to replace keyboards etc. And one of the first things I still encourage others to do is to change colours and backgrounds on their computers as an easy step to somehow make it their own machine.

  7. bbinkovitz

    Cory Doctorow has expressed some similar thoughts in his podcasts. I can’t find the exact link right now, but I remember him saying he was at some kind of security meeting where all these old guys were talking about how to institute even more DRM on everything and making it (more) illegal to hack hardware *that you already own* and he asked all these guys how they got into their fields. Most of them answered with stories about doing the 40’s and 50’s equivalents of exactly that which they were attempting to ban.

    1. amk

      I saved this quotation from alt.folklore.computers in the 1990s. The references to 256-colour games and the increasing use of GUIs make the quotation amusingly dated, but the sentiment is the same.

      Now, think about a kid in 5th grade today. They’ve grown up with Nintendo and
      arcade-quality games on their computers. They’ve grown up with zillions of
      utilities which typically have been polished for years. They’ve grown up with
      operating environments that, no matter what we may think of them, are orders of
      magnitude more sophisticated and complex than what we started with. What’s
      their motivation to program? It’s going to be years of work before their
      programs can equal the quality and capability of stuff they can get just by
      asking. When I started programming, I spent a lot of time writing games. Is a
      kid who’s used to animated 256-color action games with sound going to bother,
      when the best they can do is produce some text or a few lines moving around on
      the screen? And as everything moves toward GUI-ness, that places another
      obstacle in their path — the work needed to put a GUI on something may well be
      beyond them, let alone actually providing any functionality. Sometimes I wonder
      if we aren’t the last generation to care about the guts of the machine. We were
      introduced to computers when they were simple enough that we could make them do
      interesting tricks even as young children. Today, through the fruits of our own
      efforts, “interesting” is a much tougher goal, and I don’t know whether our
      children will make it in significant numbers. — James W. Birdsall

    2. Mary Post author

      If there’s further discussion on the general issue that Pilgrim raised that isn’t either (a) a reader’s personal tinkering experiences or (b) a feminist discussion of tinkering, can you put it on your own blogs or in Pilgrim’s comments please? It will derail this thread otherwise.

  8. Meg

    I played with a manual typewriter I got from a garage sale, but all the computers were a) shared resources and b) too much modern Macs to invite that sort of tinkering. I think Apple has tried for a long time to get away from “tinkering”; that’s what linux is for, after all.

    Instead, I had this game, Widget Workshop, that had various logic puzzles and was also a visual programming language. I went from playing the game to building various little programs (like a simple solitaire game). Incredible Machine was another game that had a kit attached and I’d invent my own levels, and later Elder Scrolls games had the same thing. These things didn’t teach me about how disks worked, or networking, but they also didn’t have the possibility of breaking a shared resource.

  9. Selene

    I grew up sharing a computer with my two sibs. I remember one of the things we did when we got a shiny 386 with Windows 3.1 was drag all the icons from all the program groups into the “Startup” group. I forget whose idea it was, but we all wanted to see what happened. Well, what happened was the computer could no longer start up Windows. My parents called in their computer whiz friend to fix it, and he shook his head the whole time he worked on it. Also, anything dealing with hardware my parents asked someone else to do–either a friend or a technician. Us kids weren’t allowed to touch that part of the computer. Actually, after that incident, we avoided Windows and mostly used DOS and the DOS program manager that had come installed on the computer. It wasn’t until years later that I started using MS Word instead of Wordstar.

    It wasn’t until college that I got a computer of my own. I remember being really nervous when I wanted to upgrade the RAM, and enlisted the help of one of my classmates to do it. Still, it was great not having to worry about random programs my sibs had installed, or having to ask them for permission to uninstall said programs when disk space got low. (We’d also fight about desktop themes.)

    I went to college for computer science and I’m working as a programmer now. I do still get nervous about fiddling with the hardware of my computer, though.

  10. Jenett

    My father was the biggest technophobe ever, but when I was 10 (this was in 1985), my parents got an Apple IIc, and while Mom used it for word processing (my father was an academic and author), they were really clear that a) it was mine and b) I could use it whenever I wanted, outside of, say when I was supposed to be in my room for bed.

    They got the IIc deliberately, so that if something broke, I could get help at school (which had the IIe) and they never stinted on letting me try stuff out – I played around in both LOGO and BASIC, plus they’d buy some of the early Broderbund games, and I had word processing software, and all sorts of fun stuff. That’s continued throughout: they didn’t get the computer (and my father died in 1990, still insisting that I print out stuff for him to review rather than reading it on screen) but I’ve always deeply appreciated that chance to play with the technology on my own terms.

    I also really appreciated my college, which did a decent job of creating spaces in some form that would let people play around with things, as well as (my junior and senior year) funding summer work through grants that had students design faculty web projects: we got to try out and learn a whole bunch of different software, work with different departments and faculty, and build a portfolio, without the faculty being really attached to a particular approach (because it was all new to them, too.)

    I spent my first year out of college working on a one-year internship doing the same thing, and while I ended up deciding to go the library route (where I tinker in all sorts of other ways!) keep coming back to the basic skills of learning new programs, design principles, and other things I learned that year.

  11. Meg Thornton

    I wasn’t encouraged to tinker, although I suspect this was more a consequence of my parents being on a limited budget rather than any gender role stereotypes, since my younger brother wasn’t encouraged to do so either. The family’s first computer was officially my brother’s, but I was the one who used it most – we got it the Christmas before I started university (so December 1988) and I used it to type up all of my essays for uni, as well as starting to teach myself programming in BASIC and playing a few RPGs my brother had acquired from friends. Breaking it, however, was completely off the cards, because all hell would have broken loose.

    The next PC in the household was one I bought for myself, so theoretically I could have tinkered away cheerfully and broken things left, right and centre. However, since it was something I’d saved up for and purchased with my own money, and I’d be the one having to pay for any repairs, I was a lot more careful. One of the consequences of this is that I’m not all that confident about my hardware skills – I tend to regard computer hardware as apparently being a lot more breakable than it actually is.

    Growing up on a low budget meant I learned to be a lot more cautious about my experimentation, because if I didn’t know what was going to happen, I could be ruining something which cost a lot of money to fix, or which my parents just couldn’t afford to replace. So if I was going to play around with things, I had to know what kind of result was expected. This was particularly the case with tinkering with electronic stuff, but the rule carried through to things like cooking.

  12. lsblakk

    I don’t feel like I was encouraged to tinker but fortunately I was a bratty, wannabe know-it-all so I felt pretty confident in doing it anyway. My mom did a one year diploma in computer programming and then graduated to an industry that had dried up and blown away so she never did any actual real-world programming. However, she had a healthy interest and respect for technology so at some point in my mid-teens I ended up with a computer in my bedroom. Reading “Unlocking the Clubhouse” showed me how a) rare that is and b) it helped me get a chance to teach myself not to be afraid of tinkering with the computer. I enjoyed writing BASIC games, playing tons of Tetris and Sierra games, and I spent lots of time creating computer “art” with the printshop applications of the time. What I didn’t realize I was also learning was DOS, and later Windows 3.1 because I became the person who “just knew” how to fix things when the computer wouldn’t start or did something unexpected. To this day, even though I have very little inside->out knowledge of the guts I still end up being the person who’s willing to open up the VCR and figure out why it won’t eject a tape or the one who will just try a ton of keyboard shortcuts to try and get a frozen computer unstuck. I’m thankful for the tinkering I got to do but I’m also looking forward to the opportunities to tinker that I’m going to provide for myself now that I have a good job and more understanding of what I like and where I want to go.

  13. Restructure!

    Another story: When I was in high school, I went to my friend’s house to work on a school project on their family Windows computer. My friend (female) is not good with computers. For some reason, I was annoyed at the colour scheme, so I started to change it like I do with my family computer at home, but something went wrong. Her younger brother then comes and yells at her, saying, “I told you before not to [tinker with the system settings]!”

    (Their computer was a bit buggy, so I didn’t actually do something wrong, although she may have thought that I didn’t know what I was doing.)

    Anyway, I found it really disturbing that her younger brother was the administrator and that she was not allowed to tinker with the system settings. I thought that maybe I was lucky that I didn’t have any brothers.

    Question to the female computer geeks in this thread: Do you have any brothers?

    1. Melissa

      I have 2 brothers. One of which often sabotaged my stuff on the family computer, including once setting my wallpaper to porn and this got me banned from using it. Which of course exposes other issues when you consider that my parents both knew he had a collection of porn on there…

    2. Kim Curry

      4 brothers, two of them relatively close in age and two WAY younger.

      One of them did get into computer building and hacker culture, and still tends to act like he knows more about computers than me.

  14. Katie

    When I was a kid (this was around the time of Windows 3.1) I asked for a computer for Christmas. Mom asked me what I wanted it for and I thought it would sound stupid if I said “I just kind of want to play around with it”, so I said, “I want to write my stories on it” (I was into writing science fiction stories). Christmas Day came round and I got… a word processor. I acted happy but I was incredibly disappointed. :-P

  15. Kim Curry

    We got an Apple IIe around 1984, when we moved from Illinois to Nebraska. It was Dad’s computer, with a modem so he could finish his M.S. as a distance learner. It was kept in my parent’s bedroom, so we couldn’t play with it ALL the time.

    But we did get several disks of games that we could play. And I remember a few times reading off weird combinations of letters and numbers to program in a game from a magazine.

    I have a vague memory of being familiar with BASIC before using it in Junior-year Trigonometry, but it wasn’t something I played with a lot.

    My dad got Logo and wanted me to play with it, but I never really knew what to DO with it. I’d have been happy to write a program if I had a goal, but apparently I didn’t really have a goal on my own.

    Also Junior year of high school, my computing class actually included some cut-and-paste Pascal programming, I really enjoyed that.

    It was a college C programming class that made me select Electrical over Mechanical engineering. Even then, I don’t remember writing a lot of code for my own reasons, outside of assignments.

  16. MamaMary

    When I was growing up in th 1960s, girls didn’t tinker. They also didn’t get Tonka trucks, Hot Wheels, or Erector Sets, 3 of the things that I asked for & my brother got and I was NOT allowed to play with “boys toys.” Luckily, my dad taught me basic carpentry and mechanics on the sly (Mom never came out to the garage). I always wanted to take things apart, figure out how they were made, and put them back together again, but that was what boys did. Sigh.
    In 1977, I took my first programming class. In 1984, I bought my first computer. By 1992, when I entered the PC support field, I was still being told by my brother and cousins (all male engineers) that I would need an advanced degree in Electrical Engineering to work with computers. By my second year as a help desk monkey, I was making more than my younger brother the engineer. The family still patronized me, as did my male co-workers – or at least, the co-workers did until they realized that even as an older woman, I could analyze and repair quicker and more easily than they did. Then the co-workers either hated me or just hung around and asked lots of questions, which I happily answered. After all, that’s how I learned about PC tech, by hanging out with a guy that built PCs and networked them together with Novell, and asking lots and lots of questions.

    I’m out of the field now, and working on a Master’s in Communication Research. Last week, the youngest daughter’s boyfriend, who knew nothing about my background, tried to explain to me just how safe and easy shopping online is! I refrained from telling him that I had been shopping online since he was in diapers. Just yesterday, I helped a friend buy her first computer, a standard desktop with Windows 7. The salesperson asked if we needed help, and when I demurred, tried to explain that he could sell us just the right computer for “women like us.” Huh? Just because we were two women in an electronics store does not mean we need hand-holding! I started asking about the video cards in the pretty little laptops he was trying to sell to us, and whether they were Adobe-certified for CS5, and whether he’d really recommend an Atom processor for graphic work. He ran away then. My friend looked on blankly, as she would not be using Adobe products anytime soon, she’s just figured out basic word processing.

    Then again, none of my children are interested in computers, programming, or hardware, although I’m still the help desk when something goes wrong. A standing joke between the oldest and middle child is “Call Mom first, don’t let a boyfriend touch the computer” because of many weeks the middle child didn’t have a computer – she’d let any friend “fix” or “modify” her computer, and have to bring it back to Mom to fix the fixes. They all were allowed to tinker, use tools, try to fix something, and encouraged in whatever they wanted to do (the oldest is a total girly-girl whose hobbies are cooking, auto repair, and set building!)

  17. spz

    My family didn’t own a computer; I got my first one from money I earned during a summer job when I had just started university, ’86.
    But not all tinkering is with computers; I started out by grabbing broken mechanical alarm clocks and repairing them (just cleaning the clockwork and adding a drop of oil usually did it), to broken wrist watches, to other machinery that had broken and was handed off to me on the basis of “she might as well have fun with it before we throw it away”. If I managed to fix it it was mine, which is f.e. how I got to have a record player and a ‘grown up’ bike. I fixed stuff in the household too, like dripping faucets.

    Electronics makes learning-by-fixing a lot harder these days (although computer hardware repair by just cleaning the thing thoroughly works amazingly often).

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