EYEO 2016: Observations on Toolmaking

Published on Jun 13, 2016

I’m writing this having returned from the 2016 EYEO Festival, a gathering of creative technologists, designers, and artists from all over the world. It was an amazing experience, and I highly recommend going if you ever have the chance to do so. There were many things I enjoyed about it…the excellent talks, getting to meet people I’ve only talked to on Twitter for the first time, and the late night dancing at Prince’s nightclub.

By the end of the week, I noticed an underlying theme to several of the talks I went to and conversations I was part of, which was that of designing and creating tools.

The first talk I noticed this theme in was Hannah Perner-Wilson’s talk, “The More I make, the more I wonder why”. She said there was a point in her e-textiles practice where she started to “make tools and not parts”. This was specifically reflected in her OHMHOOK (ohm meter / crochet hook), which lets her measure the resistance value of the circuits she creates with conductive thread.

This tool is able to help Hannah work much more quickly…instead of having to put down her crochet hooks, pick up the leads of her ohm meter to test the circuit’s resistance, put down the leads, and pick up her hooks to start crocheting again, she could test the resistance value of the circuit with the same tool she uses to create the circuit in the first place.

The topic of tools also came up in conversation. Derek Kinsman and I were talking about the tendency of some programmers to fetishize certain languages, frameworks, and development patterns at the expense of whatever languages, frameworks, and patterns are the most appropriate for the task you are trying to accomplish. (This is something Derek is particularly passionate about…on his website, he states that he “…believes finding the right solution is more important than finding the right problem and that said solution determines what tools will be used.”) 

Since creative technologists continually push the boundary of what technology can do (which often involves using it in ways it was never intended for), we frequently run into instances where the tools we’re try to use just can’t do the thing we’re trying to use them for. The solution is often then to modify that tool, or create a new one. In his talk, Ben Fry also said that the reason the Processing project exists is because of the frustration he experienced when watching students struggle to with programming something when working on a design project — they spent so much time trying to work out how to do something in their code that they would lose the bigger picture of what they were working on. As a result, Processing has helped countless others be introduced to the creative coding.

During their practices, Hannah, Ben, and many others pushed up against the limit of what their tools could do while trying to accomplish their creative or pedagogical goals. As a result, they had to create their own tools that would server their needs better than any existing tools. By open-sourcing them, their work has been able to benefit the creative practice of many others as well.