I think of digital media as an artifact itself rather than merely a tool to “teach” to a student who then would use it to make an artifact. My philosophy with digital media is to assign projects that attempt to break or circumvent a system’s everyday use and challenge that use into creating a novel interface or experience (Seely Brown). I also never focus on the tools themselves, but rather on methods of understanding software and hardware. Since software and hardware change constantly, there is no longer any use in teaching a specific type of interface. Rather, it’s important to teach how to understand interfaces in general and how to navigate through these conventional design traits. The problem of obsolescence becomes less of an issue since we can understand the conventions used in software and interfaces to some degree. The tools may be outdated, but the methods for working with them is something that stays constant throughout their evolution (Norman 20). This is the same for understanding advancements in operating systems as well, since the conventions remain the same throughout their updates with new features added on every release.
One of the main differences between digital media and institutional learning is that digital media tools and methodologies are constantly changing while traditional institutions are often stagnant and exude more permanence than change. The lessons learned from the advent of digital media are that nothing is static anymore and that in order to stay on the cutting edge, one must evolve and innovate constantly. Digital media is a mechanism for the evolution of thought processes as well as how we interact with systems and people on a global scale. I try to instill in my students that they should never take anything for granted. This is especially relevant when using software or computers and assuming that the way something works is the only way that it should or could work. This way students take a critical viewpoint (Lovink) of digital media and the tools used to create something with it, question it, and decide whether there might be a better way than what already exists. I am always more interested in questioning the media than embracing it since more interesting results can come from the former approach when producing media art projects.
When teaching, I try to get the students to immerse themselves in digital media environments and social networks to the point where they can experience them from the same perspective of someone who has used them from the start. Only from this perspective can they truly understand the medium in which they are working and begin to see how subverting these systems will yield interesting results. I think it is important to teach the values of social software, but also to outline the critical aspects of this changing medium as well. The main problem with social software is that it is a mediated medium with specific rules and regulations that are not always as obvious to users as one might think. Rather than discover these limitations, users are content to divulge their personal information to these corporations in return for receiving free storage space online and a medium in which they can interact with their friends, families, and peers. They are not always conscious of the freedoms they are relinquishing by signing up to these social networking sites and these types of miscues can often come back to haunt them in the future.
When learning the tools of networks and computer systems, it is important to think of them as a system rather than a specified set of interfaces. One example of software used to teach students how to program electronics is the Arduino board, designed and built in Italy, and its accompanying programming environment. Created initially to be similar and a hardware companion to the Processing software that teaches programming to artists and designers, Arduino software provides an interface to communicate and program the hardware board of the same name. Prior to Arduino, the tools for programming micro-controllers were only available on the Windows platform. The chips in question for artists were the PIC chip from Microchip Technology, the Basic Stamp by Parallax Inc., and the BasicX by NetMedia. Despite the ease of use of these technologies for someone with very basic electronics knowledge and skill, the act of programming these chips was often cumbersome and glitchy since in order to see your program run, you needed to mount them on an external breadboard and hook up auxiliary power and other hardware components. It often took someone who was very skilled at electronics to both teach these controllers as well as get them to work in the ways in which they were intended.
Arduino on the other hand was designed from the start for artists and those who were just learning electronics to empower them and get them started on projects without any technical training needed beforehand. Since the programming language, based on the Processing language which was based on Java, is relatively easy to understand, even a novice could get a circuit working in a limited time frame. Also, the board was powered through a USB connection, which lessened the amount of external hardware needed to get a project running. The board itself costs under US$ 40, which also made the price barrier to entry lower for a novice who had never used electronics before so that they could easily start working with hardware without a huge financial deficit. Like Processing, Arduino is extensible and supports various software libraries that make the hardware platform reach even further than any of the previously mentioned interfaces, which also creates new possibilities for users. Furthermore, the board is open-source, meaning artists and designers can rebuild the hardware to their own design as long as they do not call it “Arduino” (the name is trademarked for quality control). Because of the open-source design, many artists have customized the Arduino design into multiple incarnations in order to create standalone projects that work as aesthetically pleasing objects (Djajadiningrat, Gaver and Fres).
I became interested in Arduino as early as 2004 when I was using it to upgrade all of my older projects that used the older boards in order to save on power supplies and excess hardware. The board was very inexpensive, which meant I could use it to make multiple copies of a project if I were to show it simultaneously in different locations. I advise my students and people who attend a hardware-based workshop that I co-run called Scrapyard Challenge to use the boards. Often they are new to electronics and hardware and want to get started on a project but have no specific skills in the area. Arduino provides an easy entry point into the world of electronics and hardware by catering its approach towards simplicity, understandable language and programming skills, and ease of use. For instance, when programming Basic Stamp and BasicX boards, I would often get stuck “programming” the chip, since the serial data connection from the computer to the board was often homemade and never connected right every time. Prior to USB connection, it required a 9 pin serial port cable from a PC to the chip and this connection was built by hand in order to make sure the chip was receiving the right signals from the computer. There were countless times when my boards would not program correctly and, before I got to building the project, I could not even get my code to the chip. Arduino’s solid connection to the computer with its built in USB port and indicator LEDs solved this problem and made it possible to enjoy the act of creating with hardware first above, getting it to work which rarely happens anymore.
As a teaching and learning tool, Arduino is a breath of fresh air for designers and artists who do not want to acquire the skills of an engineer in order to get an often simple project up and running within a limited time constraint. Its ease of use and rapidly expanding developer community has aided an entire generation of programmers, designers, practitioners, and artists who never thought they would be designing hardware systems. With Arduino, they can program and create new interfaces quickly, cheaply, and easily without any prior knowledge needed about the world of electronics or electronic components.
Also situated within the software community of Processing and Arduino is Fritzing, a software and hardware system that employs a similar approach to its two cousins. Rather than just focus on programming a board or programming graphics, Fritzing allows users to create and design their own printed circuit boards (PCBs) which they might use to create a standalone version of a project or just a more solid version of their project on a custom designed board. Along with Arduino, Fritzing is a powerful new way to think about designing electronics and hardware since it allows the users and artists to empower themselves by designing hardware that was once only in reach of trained electrical engineers (Penny 35).
Over the course of the past few years, I have used Arduino extensively in my work because of its inexpensive cost, flexibility and ease of use, and the large support community for the tool online. As a motivator, Arduino is a project that originated in an art school in Italy and has since been used in both pedagogical environments as well as in commercial products and large scale hardware systems. In effect, the tools of artists are making their way into the “real” world and changing the way that people think about and use electronics and electrical systems. The ease with which sensors and actuators can be attached to the hardware platform enable it to be a catalyst for both large and small scale interactive projects and an inspiration for novice and trained artists and scientists to think of new ways to implement, teach, and discover new possibilities with the system. Overall, I would recommend the system to anyone who has either never used electronics or anyone who is an expert on anything related to electronics, all of whom would be equally able to create something imaginative on the platform. The ease of use and low barrier to entry makes it both an accessible and creative tool in the development of interactive projects and systems.
Norman, Donald. The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution. Boston: MIT Press, 1991.
Seely Brown, John. “Pedagogy of Tinkering.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 12 December 2007. Web. 26 January 2011. <http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/audio-interview-how-the-internet-is-changing-education/3551>.
Penny, Simon. Critical issues in Electronic Media. New York: SUNY Press, 1995.
Djajadiningrat, J. P., W. W. Gaver and J. W. Fres. “Interaction Relabeling and Extreme Characters: Methods for Exploring Aesthetic Interactions.” Proceedings of the Conference on Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques. Eds. D. Boyarski and W. A. Kellogg. New York, NY: ACM Press, 2000. 66-71.
Lovink, Geert. Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. Boston: MIT Press, 2002.