Tinker for Freedom

By Carla Schroder | Sep 5, 2006 | Print this Page

These are weird times we live in. I grew up in the '70s, with all that funny love, peace and freedom jive floating around everywhere. Now I'm a cranky silver-haired old bat who still believes all that guff, and fortunately can still find fragments of it here and there.

An essential freedom is the freedom to tinker. We need tinkers: those incurably nosy natural-born lab rats who take things apart to figure out how they work, and how to repair them or morph them into other things. Anyone can be a tinkerer. Of course some people have more tinkering aptitude than others, but I think it's downright pitiful when a couple of button pushes or swiping a credit card exhausts a person's manual skills, and they don't understand the basic concepts behind devices they use every day. You'll never hear a tinker wail helplessly "but I want it to just work!" tinkers make things work, often better than they originally did.

How does one nurture her inner tinker? We have more resources these days than ever. An excellent education can be had by a number of means; a formal education with degrees and professors and bureaucracy isn't the only, or even the best, path. I know some of you fine readers won't believe me, but even before the Internet we had (and still have, despite efforts otherwise) public libraries chock-full of useful stuff. Tinkering itself is an educational tool, just by messing around with things. Remember, big fat bloaty corporations don't invent cool stuff – tinkers do.

Software Tinkering

The whole point of Free Software is you can always get into the guts of a program. Nothing is hidden. This is bad for lazy button-pushers who are content to stitch together piles of lardy prefab classes and call it programming, but incredibly valuable for anyone who wants to understand what's really happening in an application, and who wants ultimate control over the software.

The barrier to entry is low: all you need is a computer, an Internet connection, and time and determination. All the tools are free of cost: compilers, graphical toolkits, integrated development environments, and gigabytes of programs to dissect and study. There is no lack of documentation and help; everything from printed manuals and books to online communities full of helpful humans. If a person wants to learn to be a great programmer, the Free Software world is the most amazing and beneficial resource available.

Hardware Tinkering

A hardware tinker can't start from scratch like a software tinker because of having to rely on someone else to manufacture parts. Still, a steady hand with a soldering iron can work wonders, and a hardware tinker can make all sorts of ingenious devices from random parts. But if the evil Anti-Tinkering Overlords get their way hardware tinkering will become impossible, because in this charming era of Treacherous Computing and Digital Restrictions Management there are sizable resources devoted to stamping out tinkering entirely. If they succeed in locking down the hardware, it won't matter how free the software is. Which leads us to

Legal Tinkers

Pamela Jones started the most important revolution of all with Groklaw. I call PJ a "legal tinker" not because she makes or modifies laws, but because she sheds a bright light on the internals of US civil law and courts, and gives skillfully guided tours of the intricate machinery that powers it. In classic tinker fashion she took advantage of new tools (blogging) to make something new and interesting. Sharing information is also classic tinker behavior, because (sorry for the cliche) knowledge is power. PJ elevated the discussion and analysis of civil law far beyond the customary shallow, useless tripe we've been fed all these years, using strange things like facts, court filings, and case law. Odd, I know, and way more work than the usual he-said she-said style of analysis, but strangely exhilarating.

Groklaw has even inspired a number of people to enroll in law school. Technological savvy alone is never enough; in these here modern times we need smart legal tinkers on the side of good more than ever.

Nobody Stops a True Tinker

True tinkers find ways around all obstacles: technical, legal, and political. I wish we didn't have to bother with the last two, but I reckon as long as humans exist that will always be a necessity.