Form and affordance

I have learned about the principle of affordances as introduced by Gibson when I started my MA, but I have been quite suspicious about it. Two examples of my own life, make me hesitant to fully inscribe to this idea. I have problems picking up scissors. As a left-handed person I am quite used to them being annoying, and it was rather recently that someone pointed out that the smaller hole is for the thumb and the other one for the other finger. Even though this is meant to guide the hand, it never did for me. It was something to consciously learn. Another problem – maybe even more awkward – is the use of doors. Even after five years in the UK I have problems to distinguish between ‘push’ and ‘pull’. And even thought it is true that a door without a handle lends itself to push, I still have many doors I run into as handles can mean ‘push’  or can mean there are handles on both sides. Even though the handle is more inviting to pull, I have learnt that this is often misleading and do not use it ‘instinctive’ anymore.

James J. Gibsons text on “The theory of Affordances” is often referenced and both admired and rejected in this context. He defines affordances as “a specific combination of the properties of its substance and its surfaces taken with reference to an animal.” (Gibson, 1977, 67) Later on in the text he extends into more detail the different activities that can be afforded with this being the most relevant one in this context: “Moreover the objects of the environment afford activites like manipulation and tool using.” (ibid, 68) He relates the idea of affordances to the biological term of the niche, which he defines not as the habitat of a species, but “how it lives”. (Gibson, 1977, 69) He goes on to define the niche as a “set of affordances”(ibid) into which the animal not only fits because it is suitable, but also because it fits metaphorically. (compare Gibson, 1977, 69)

The point that causes the largest controversy within the discussion around affordances and which will be discussed in the context of this projects, is his claim that affordances are neither “subjective” to the animal, neither “objective” to the object. (Gibson, 1977, 69) He goes on to explain that “The affordances of the environment are facts of the environment, not appearances.” (ibid, 70) Later in the text he distinguishes between the “qualities” of an object and its “affordances” (ibid, 75) In context of everyday design this distinction becomes important as Gibson argues that affordances may be first to notice:

“Nevertheless I suggest that we perceive when we look at them are their affordances, not their qualities. We can, of course, discriminate these dimensional qualities if required to compare them as objects. But the unique combination of qualities that specifies what the object affords us is what we normally pay attention to.” (Gibson, 1977, 75)

This thought is interesting as it emphasises how people make use of objects by looking at how it can be used, rather than how it should be used. When discussing if this is true only for children or also for adults, he specifies that “The meanings are observed before the substances and surfaces are.”

Based on Gibsons work Bozeat (2002, 237) explains two different categories of affordance:

“In recent studies, the term affordance has been used to refer to two
potentially separate mechanisms that support object use directly from visual and/or tactile input. One is problem solving, or reasoning about the use of an object on the basis of its physical characteristics, which will be discussed below. The other is more like the Gibsonian notion of  affordance, in which clues to the hold, orientation, movement, and purpose of an object are systematically related to its physical structure (e.g., if it has a sharp edge, it is used for cutting).”

Greenhalgh add another layer to the qualities an object inherits: the cultural.

“The material features of technologies – dimensions, shape, colour, durability, size of buttons, brightness of screen and so on – have a powerful influence on whether and how technologies are used. But ‘materiality’ also includes sociological implications of these features (Dourish & Mazmaniam, 2011). Digital goods have cultural meaning.” (Greenhalgh, 2013, 87)

Christopher Alexander emphasises the form and the fit as a guiding principle for design: “Indeed, the form itself relies on its inner organization and on the internal fitness between the pieces it is made of to control its fit as a whole to the context outside.” (Alexander, 1967, 18) But he explains that fit is hardly recognized, rather people turn to “misfits” for guidance: “These misfits are the forces which must shape it, and there is no mistaking them. Because they are expressed in negative form they are specific, and tangible enough to talk about.” (Alexander, 1967, 23) He further emphasises that these design problems are interconnected: “This is a typical design problem; is has requirements which have to be met; and there are interactions between the requirements, which makes the requirements hard to meet.” (Alexander, 1967, 2)

In his text he distinguishes “unselfconscious” and “selfconscious” culture, which are distinguished by the way they teach design rules:

“I shall call a culture unselfconscious if its form-making is learned informally, through imitation and correction. And I shall call a culture selfconscious if its form-making is taught academically, according to explicit rules.” (Alexander, 1967, 36)

Design guidelines often motivate the designer to think about affordances and ways in which they can be introduced digitally. But are affordances inherit in material objects? And how does this apply to everyday design? Brandes, Stich and Wender observe 4 categories which influence Non-Intentional Design (NID): form, material, value & dispensability and availability (compare Brandes; Stich; Wender, 2009, 149)

In the context of health and well-being, affordance has slightly different connotations. Bozeat (2002, 237) explains how the term is used to evaluate performance:

“In neuropsychological contexts, affordance has typically been characterized in a post hoc fashion: If a patient’s use of an object is better than would be expected, it is assumed that the physical properties are guiding the patient toward the correct manipulation.”

They conclude suggest in  their findings that “familiarity
is only important in the use of unaffordanced items; for affordanced
objects, there was no influence of familiarity. (ibid. 245)

Analysing requirements in dementia specialised care homes, Topo, Kotilainen and Eloniemi-Sulkava (2012, 120) emphasise the importance of motivation in regards to affordance and define affordances in a very subjective manner:

“A person’s motivation is central to perceiving, uti-lizing, and shaping affordances; for this reason, it is impossible to fully define all the available affor-dances of an environment because they are con-stantly under interpretation.”
They warn against relying to strongly on affordances in the context of dementia:
“Because peo-ple with dementia typically have difficulties with perception, such as perceiving common objects or distances, the possibility of false affordances also needs to be taken into account.” (Topo; Kotilainen; Eloniemi-Sulkava, 2012, 120)
A particular problem has been observed by Nyberg and Starkhammar (2007, 151f): “In a couple of cases, a particular form of directional problem occurred when participants knew which button to push, but were trying to push it in the wrong direction. … This indicated the presence of a spatially related problem even when the objects and the movements were highly familiar.”
A “misfit” in form and therefore in use can leave a technology disabling, as observed e.g. by Greenhalgh (2013, 88):
“A familiar technology is ‘ready-to-hand’, backgrounded and available to mediate between the individual and the world when picked up and used by the skilled human actor. But if the technology does not ‘work’ as intended, it loses its phenomenological transparency and begins to interfere with the individual’s relationship to the world.”
This idea leads to the relationship between the body and technologies and further to questions about embodiment and the idea of the cyborg.

Everyday design

Within this post I want to explore the area of everyday design. This involves thoughts on everyday design, design-by-use or design-in-use, and non intentional design. All these approaches to design share that users appropriate designed objects to fit them into their own context. This approach questions the common assumption that ‘creativity’ is something that only ‘creative people’ have, a view described in the post on creativity. Kim and Lee (2014, 2) describe everyday design as follows: “However, adapting and changing everyday artifacts does not depend solely on creative people but rather  involves everyone.” (Kim; Lee, 2014, 2) Brandes, Stich and Wender go even further and argue that the ” phenomenon of NID refers to an innate ability of humankind to develop solutions for situational problems through the use of what is at hand.” (Brandes; Stich; Wendes, 2009, 22)
These kinds of appropriation separate the intended use and the actual use of the item as it in itself a ‘creative process ‘ as observed by Kim and Lee (2014, 2):”When use is detached from design, people’s behaviors in relation to designed artifacts are no longer the result of design. Rather, they are creative processes referred to in this study as everyday design.”
But the process is nonetheless different from the creative process of the professional designer as Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 12) outline: “There is no impulse to consciously create. Non-intentional design is neither defined by, nor infused with, the will to design.” The authors state three other motivations that might lead to everyday design: “It [non-intentional design] arises from temporary situations of deficit, from convenience and from playfulness.” ( ibid, 13)
Even though the insight of how people interact with their environment in an everyday setting can be very important for designers, it is not something commonly shared as Kim and Lee (2014, 2) observe:
“Individuals who create everyday designs are not aware of the potential value of everyday design as a resource for professional designers, nor do they even acknowledge what they are doing.”  In the second part of this quote they highlight a very important point that resonates with observations by other researchers as well. Many of these alterations are not thought-through activities, but might rather be unconscious, spontaneous events. I assume that to some extent this relates to tacit knowledge about the everyday tasks, movements and observations.From the outside the decisions made seem opaque and Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 115) suggest, that they might also be so from the inside:  “Non-intentional design oscillates between conscious and sub-conscious actions, and we can rarely tell by simply looking at repurposed objects why they were used in this way. And most people who implement changes of use are often not able to analyse why they did so in retrospect.”
Wakkari and Maestri (2008, 12) explore this notion through observations in family homes and conclude that this kind of design is not static, but rather an evolution of practices:
“The simplest of appropriations are often opportunistic and temporary; however, it is through experiencing artifacts in use that further ideas, combinations, and recombination are generated, forming  new routines and systems. (Wakkari; Maestri, 2008, 12)
Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 150)offer the alternative case that: “the spontaneously selected object fulfils its new task satisfactorily, so that there is no longer the need to acquire a new product.”
They go on to observe that everyday design is a “creative process” (ibid), which implies an element of time. In this context it is interesting to observe that Kim and Lee talk about “design activity” and “transformations of artifacts” (Kim; Lee, 2014, 2)Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 150) add in this context in regards to the outcome of the everyday design: “An increase in the time available for solving a problem results in equally higher expectations regarding the result.”
Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 151) also bring up the point of reversibility. They distinguish between “things that are only repurposed for a short period of time and those that are repurposed permanently.” (ibid) One of the aspects that might influence the point of reversability is the question of how far the object is changed through its new use. The authors unfortunately do not go further into other factors that might influence reversability, such as testing out ideas or not wanting to settle on a solution. I will see if I can find more information on this.
Kim and Lee used a picture and text database (‘Wikiuse’), which has been shared with professional designers to anlyse how these everyday designs would influence the design process. They give a very positive view on this technique and emphasise that it gives further background:
“However, we found that designers provided with cases of everyday design were more immersed in the actual context. The designers examined the actual context when examining cases of everyday design and then described the characteristics of the target group with confidence.” (Kim; Lee, 2014, 10)
In this context they also discuss the role of interaction between agents and artifacts (Kim; Lee, 2014, 12) and discussed that is was easy to see by the designers:”Rather, professional designers first recognized interactions—relationships between actors and artifacts—from cases of everyday design”. (Kim; Lee, 2014, 10)

Dementia and the role of the user

After analysing the role of the user in the relationship with the designer or maker, I want to explore further how – and if – these roles are different in the context of dementia. Even though dementia is an illness not only affecting older people, this post does include considerations about this user group as well.

Brittain (2010, 273) observe that older people are often considered passive users of technology: “Older people are commonly assigned to the role of object rather than subject in the development of technology.” Following up on this view, they argue that in regards to dementia a different notion needs to be explored: “Further research is needed, related to how people with dementia, as social actors, operate independently of and alongside social and physical environmental constraints.” (Brittain, 2010, 276) Astell (2014, 164) go even further and summarize the results of a “medical view on dementia”, which is “focussing on degeneration and loss of abilities”:

This view is both deterministic and pessimistic (Kitwood, 1990) and fostered widely held misconceptions that little or nothing can be done to help (Banerjee, 2010; Vernooij-Dassen et al., 2005). This has led to excessive disabling of people with dementia (Wells and Dawson, 2000), where an individual with an acquired or congenital condition is disabled to a greater extent than is due to simply having the condition (Brody, 1971).” (Astell, 2014, 164f)

If technology is developed with people living with dementia in mind, it is interesting to consider the motivations and aims behind it. Brittain (2010, 273) explain one view, which focusses on the role the technology is supposed to take in the everyday life: “Gerontechnology is derived from a human to machine perspective, whereby technologies are intended to compensate for human deficiencies.” Rosenberg and Nyberg confirm this view in their study of how people living with dementia and their significant others become users of assistive technology:”One of the ideas expressed by the OTs [Occupational Therapists] or the significant others regarding the recommendation of new ATs [Assistive Technologies] or strategies were that these would simplify a complicated life for the person with dementia.” (Rosenberg; Nygard, 2011, 146)

Neven (2010, 166) argues that this view might lead to complications as people considered users might reject this view and might be unable or unwilling to adopt this self-image:

“Even if technology could be beneficial to the health and wellbeing of elder users, elder users who feel that they are being positioned as old, lonely and frail may rightly refuse to be positioned as such and consequently refuse to use the technology.”

Becoming a user is a fluent process according to Rosenberg and Nyberg (2011, 149), which takes time and might lead to further adjustments or replacements:

“Needs for adjustment or replacement, arising after some time of use, were not obvious beforehand and hence the actors could not have anticipated them. Instead they appeared when the person with dementia had had the AT at home for a while.”

When choosing assistive technology for someone living with dementia, two things come into play according to Rosenberg and Nygard. Firstly they emphasise the need to develop strategies to evaluate the need of someone living with dementia. They take the view that observation will play an important part in this evaluation:

“With respect to the difficulties resulting from a dementia disease, it might not be enough to ask the person or the significant others about preferences or current habits or strategies. Rather, it may be necessary to observe the person with dementia in actual situations to see how problems are met and how he or she interacts with the environment.”(Rosenberg; Nygard, 2011, 149)

But they also warn that this observation might be biased and that people caring for someone with dementia bring in their own expectations and restrictions as well:

“The choice of problem did not just reflect the OTs’ and significant others’ perceptions of what the right activities were for the persons with dementia to engage in, but also which problems the OTs and the significant others perceived were possible to solve.” (Rosenberg; Nygard, 2011, 148)

Both Rosenberg and Nygard and Brittain consider technology both enabling and disabling. Brittain (2010, 283) observe the use of technology in regards to public space and found that technology might enhance the experience, but also found example in which technology hindered the use of personal support structures.

“But, it also shows the variety of ways people with dementia manage ‘feeling out of place’, with some curtailing activities and others being guided by the physical and social environments which they inhabit. Technologies can support or hinder access to these places.”

Rosenberg and Nyberg (2011, 149) also found, that newly introduced technologies were used to shape the behaviour of someone living with dementia: “In the third category a process emerged, where the problems and needs of the person with dementia were altered gradually in order to match the potential of the AT.”

But they also found that the input of the person was highly important if the introduction of the technology was to be successful. They emphasise “personal motivation” as a factor to establish “whether a person with dementia would prioritize use of the AT as a new strategy”. (Rosenberg; Nygard, 2011, 144)

Regarding the everyday use of technology they give advice on how to enhance the impact of technology. One is in regards to the “right place” which ” was determined by where the person with dementia would most often use it, or where using it would be most important, as well as by its design.” (Rosenberg; Nygard, 2011, 145) The other recommendation suggests that prompts should be incorporated into the technology so that the user with dementia does not have to rely on instructions:

“The analysis showed that even though the persons with dementia were instructed in the use of the various ATs, it was still the use that the AT communicated directly to them that influenced how it was used in practice, as they had difficulty remembering the instructions.” (Rosenberg; Nygard, 2011, 145)

Even though this does make the tools more usable for people living with dementia, it does so in a very guiding way, and might as such enforce ‘proper use’, rather than a more creative exploration.

But the role of people living with dementia does not have to be limited to using assistive technology. Acts of appropriation of ‘common’ tools have been observed not only by Gibson (see post on Utility Hacks), but also by Brittain (2010, 282): “Furthermore, when specifically asked if they used any ‘modern’ technological devices to support them in outside spaces, a number of participants said that they used mobile phones.” This points towards a more active use of technology by people living with dementia, which might go beyond the current view of the passive user, who needs support to cope with deficits.

Nygard and Starkhammar (2007, 146) analysed the use of everyday technologies by people living with dementia and found 4 categories of problems arising:

“The barriers to everyday technology use appeared in four domains: (a) as interfering conditions related to the person, the context and the design of the artefacts, and (b) as limitations in the participants’ knowledge of the technology and its potential, and (c) as difficulties in direct technology use, characterized by communication problems both in understanding and in the administration of the technology. The participants’ use of instructions for use (d) formed the fourth domain (Table 2).”

Questions coming up from this post are: What do people living with dementia want technology for? How can these needs be made visible to designers/developers?

Proper function

The notion of hacking implies that objects have a proper use, a proper function. The hack itself is a deviation from this proper function – and may therefore be seen as liberating or illegal. Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 10) place the “beginnings of Non-intentional Design”, that is design that goes beyond the proper function, at the “development of a product culture which started during the later period of industrialisation.”

Beth Preston argues whether proper function is established by the designer or maker of an object, or by the user who interacts with the object. She distinguishes between two types of function, which are defined as follows:

“A proper function is what a thing is supposed to do – usually understood in the case of artifacts as what it is designed to do. A system function is a contingent purpose a thing may serve on occasion without having been designed to do so.” (Preston, 2006, 17)

In this view on design and objects, the role of the designer implies that an object is given a function: “In other words, if an agent intends an artifact she designs to have a specific function, than that is the function is has, at least initially.” (Preston, 2006, 15) Brandes, Stich and Weber (2009, 183) emphasise the element of time and state that: “Consequently we can say that every object has two meanings: the one that is was given when it was designed, and the one it has received through its use.”

This is turn leads to a passive – or even suppressed – role of the user, as observed e.g. by Vermaas and Houkes (2006, 32):

“Alternative, or improper, use of an artefact is best understood as employing another set of dispositions – the artefact’s ‘accidental functions’; users are under normative pressure to use an artefact as intended by the designers of an artefact, that is to use it for its (proper) function.”

As with hacks, the question arises what constitutes a deviation from the ‘proper function’. Preston (2006, 23) explores this issue in describing many ways in which objects will be modified during its use:

“But in fact many common use activities involve or result in modifications of the artifacts, e.g., maintenance (polishing, washing, sharpening) and repair (mending, patching, rebuilding). These modifications can be quite extensive, and are typically intended.”

Within the discussion of ‘proper function’ the question of who defines this function needs to be addressed. Preston illustrates two possible reasonings behind giving the leading role to the designer or the maker/producer of the objects:

“One obvious possibility is that the intentions of designers might have some special cognitive structure or characteristics that sets them apart from the intentions of users.” (Preston, 2006, 22)

“Another obvious possibility is that production is creative in a way that use is not.” (Preston, 2006, 23)

Regarding technology, Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 12) observe that the increased abstraction of highly developed technological products takes away opportunities for everyday design:

“Whereas ‘improper’ use can still be functional when low-complexity products are concerned, or might even endow the object with added value, most high-tech appliances are not suited for NID [Non-Intentional Design].”

This high complexity of new products also leads to a decrease of ‘proper function’ as the intended function is not immediately visible anymore: “Since the new high-tech products hide their actual functions, design has to create artificial indications that facilitate the identification of purpose and use.” (Brandes; Stich; Wender, 2009, 56)

Designer, Maker, User

Practices such as craft or DIY  for which ‘untrained’ people engage in the activity of creating objects question the role of the designer. Preston (2006, 15) distinguishes three groups engaged in the design process, which can, but do not have to be separated:

“There are three distinguishable roles human agents may play with regards to artifacts – designer, maker, and user. As commonly understood, the designer specifies the characteristics of the artifact to be made; the maker does the actual construction work; and the user subsequently puts the artifact to use.”

(Hardware) Hackers, Crafter or people engaging in DIY often combine two, if not all three of these roles in themselves. In being designers themselves – if conscious or not – consumers play a part in design culture and shape it:

“Historically, productive and creative activities of this kind have allowed consumers to engage actively with design and the design process at a number of levels, and to express a more individual aesthetic unbounded by the structures of massproduction and passive consumption.” (Atkinson, 2006, 1)

Schot and de la Bruheze (2003, 230f )outline a geographical as well as social division between users and consumers:

“In modern societies the mediation process became structured by a tendency to concentrate design activites in laboratories and in design agencies and firms. As a consequence, the identification of consumers and their needs became increasingly difficult – especially in the twentieth century, when the rise of mass production and the upscaling of production in most industries widened the gap between production and consumption.

This process is furthered complicated by a perceived tendency of designers and engineers to consider themselves the prospective users as well: “Engineers’ designing for themselves, in effect considering themselves to be representatives of the future users, is not uncommon.” (Lindsay, 2003, 34) Introducing the user’s perspective early on does influence the role of the designer as well: “Pushing users to the fore not only nuances traditional histories of designers and makers but also makes visible the often-hidden role of gender at an early stage.” (Schot; de la Bruheze, 2003, 230)

The complex of gender plays an important role in this discussion as well in the discussions surrounding dementia and care. It is nonetheless expected that it will play only a limited role within this research project.

In the discussion about use plans, the role of the user is particularly relevant as is already mentioned in the post on “Proper function”. Vermaas and Houkes (2006, 43)in this context divide the concept of the user in three subclasses, based on the to what extend they interact with objects: “It merely proves that the class of users can be broken up in subclasses: passive users that carry out existing use plans(…); creative users that construct their own plans (…), and innovative users that construct their own use plans and communicate them to other users(…). Forchhammer (2006, 133) describes this process both in regards to the concept of ‘objectivation’ and ‘subjectivation’:

“The process of using technologies is both a process of subjectivation, making sense in practice, and also of objectivation, producing (new) meaning that potentially can transform the concrete situation and be related to by others.”

In technology the role of the user is discussed in slightly different terms. Oudshoorn and Pinch (2003) give an overview of the discussions about users and the different views established in the 80s and 90s that shaped our current perception of the user. This overview is interesting not only as a timeline, but also as a reminder that many trends and philosophies influence how each entity is viewed and how both are considered in relationship to each other. They define their aim  “to present studies of the co-construction of users and technologies that go beyond technological determinist views of technology and essentialist views of uers’ identities. (Oudshoorn; Pinch, 2003, 3)

Oudshoorn and Pinch (2003, 1) also emphasise that the relationship between a user and technology can be complex and that they “are interested in how users consume, modify, domesticate, design, reconfigure, and resist technologies.” This view stands against the view presented in the beginning of this post that designers design, makers make and users use. Brandes, Stich and Wendes add a more materialistic view in which they refer to the object itself: ” ‘Use’ makes the user enter into a specific of object relationship that is located between form and function.” (Brandes; Stich; Wender, 2009, 55)

Bardini and Horvath (1995, 42) define the role of the “innovator” as to “provide the missing link between inventor and user, as the producer of the social meaning of the technology in their social construction of future personal computer users.”

Hacking, Craft and DIY

I am a crafter myself. I handknit and crochet and I use many other textile based crafts, in the past to earn money from, at the moment in a more private, often reflective way. I am very aware of the perceptions around craft that have also been described by Hickey (1997, 89) in relation to ready available craft kits, which stand in contrast to “studio craft” in her opinion: “…self-sufficiency, thrift, sanitised natural materials, happy childhoods and the comfort of hearth and home.” But already here we see another side of craft mentioned, that of “studio craft”. The reasons people pick up crafts and the actual activities they engage in are plenty, which makes a classification complex. Same goes to say for both DIY and hacking. In his article about DIY , Design and Democracy Paul Atkinson categorises craft activities into four different classes, which are based on the motivation to take up DIY:  pro-active DIY, reactive DIY, essential DIY, lifestyle DIY (compare, Atkinson, 2006, 3)

The motivation and philosophy about hacking have been described in an earlier post. This article will mostly focus on hardware hacking. Even though hacking is mostly considered digital and uses coding as a technique, there is an aspect of hacking that is more material: “Hardware hackers take the spirit of hacking into material relations, finding new and novel uses enabled by the soldering iron rather than the command line” (Jordan, 2008, 123). Material development also links the idea of hacking to the hackspace (which will be discussed in more detail in another post): “From this rudimentary time line, it is evident that activities in hackerspaces have gravitated towards the physical.” (Maxigas, 2012, 5)

In “A brief history of hardware hacking” four classes of hardware hacking are defined:

“Personalizing and customizing. Often called “hotrodding for geeks” it includes modifications, custom skins, and even art projects (such as creating an aquarium out of a vintage computer);
Adding functionality. Making the system or product do something it wasn’t intended to do (such as converting an iPod to run Linux or modifying a classic Atari 2600 video game console to support stereo sound and composite video output);
Improving capacity or performance. Enhancing or otherwise upgrading a product (such as expanding the recording capacity of a TiVo box by adding a larger hard drive, modifying a wireless network card to support an external antenna, or overclocking a PC’s motherboard);
Defeating protection and security mechanisms. Included are finding “Easter eggs,” hidden menus, and backdoors in DVD players or video game consoles or creating a custom cable to unlock the secrets of a cell phone.” (Anon, 2006, 49)

DIY and Hacking are also connected in the area of ‘making’ as observed e.g. by Hyysalo (2014, 212f):

Although ‘making’ builds on a tradition of handicraft and ‘DIY’ (do-it-yourself), it today also includes (and more commonly refers to) use of digital manufacturing tools in handson fabrication of material artefacts, including electronics and physical computing experiments, furniture and items for the home or body and prototypes of all kinds.

More than in the other areas DIY and hacking, the role of tools and technology is discussed within craft. Dormer (1997, 138) dispels the common notion that crafts are done by manual labour: “Most things that are made by craft workers require tools, and some of these tools are elaborate, time-saving machines.” But still in many of these cases the tools still provide a close, material engagement with the material which is not the case in solely digital projects. Myerson (1997, 179) for example concludes that “This lack of a tactile or physical encounter with materials as the basis for decision-making in design is cited by many as the reason why computing cannot yet be regarded as a craft in its own right.” Dormer (1997, 147) brings the notion of tacit knowledge into the discussion: “Craft relies on tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is acquired through experience and it is the knowledge that enables you to do things as distinct from talking or writing about them.”

This knowledge can also be described as mastery of the craft, when knowledge goes beyond theoretical experience. This notion of mastery is eminent both in discussions about craft and hacking. Compare for example Thomas (2002,xvi): “Perhaps the most important element of hacker culture is the notion of mastery.” and Dormer (1997, 140): “…it is craft as knowledge that empowers a maker to take charge of technology.” Coleman (2013, 98) takes the notion further and brings in the element of innovation: “In essence, while hacking follows a craftlike practice, it is predicated on a stance of craftiness to move the craft forward. Hacking is where craft and craftiness converge.”

Innovation is also a topic of the post on hackathons and will be only mentioned here briefly. Interesting is the assessment by Grand (2006, 48) who relates hardware hacking and academic research:

“The do-it-yourself ethos of the hardware hacking community, coupled with the more structured approach of standard academic thinking will continue to lead to new and novel technology.”

Hacking is by far considered the most dangerous or illegal of the three activities. But even DIY and craft have a certain ‘subversive’ ring to it or can be used in this practice. The “Radical Lace and subversive knitting” exhibition (link to catalogue here) is one of the examples of this. Paul Atkinson (2006, 9) also describes elements of a counter-culture to DIY:

“It is interesting, too, that so many of the same issues are addressed by each author. Throughout, issues of emulation, class and taste are discussed, as are similar economic and social factors. What is of more interest here though, is how each article demonstrates different ways in which all forms of DIY have enabled the consumer to rail against the prescribed design edicts, and indeed, prescribed social mores of the time.”

This view stands in contrast to more “production-oriented studies”, which “take the existance of consumers for granted, and focus on their choices.” (Schot; de la Bruheze, 2003, 230) The authors go on to say that: “As a result, they tend to de-emphazise production and system building.” (ibid.)

The areas of hacking, craft and DIY do overlap and are complex to distinguish. This is also partly due to the fact that “… making is also a fast moving target. Technologies, practices and communities of makers have evolved rapidly during the last decade.” (Hyysalo, 2014, 209)

Questions to take further from this research are: What are the motivations for people living with dementia to make alterations to their home, gadgets or environments? Can dementia hacking be considered subversive? How to classify alterations as crafts, DIY or hacking – and is this classification even neccessary?

Hacking around the house

The topic I suggest researching does have a strong focus on the home. Be it the long-standing family home or a nursing home, most of the alterations I am interested in looking at will take place around or in the home. The home has been a source of research for ethnographic research and I will draw from this area of research mostly to understand what issues are connected with research around the home and how the hardware hacking of items in the home is embedded into a wider context.

Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 60) point out two important properties of the home that make it particularly suitable to ‘hacked’ solutions: “Thus we can find two extremes in the same private space: On the one hand, we use this space to express our personality. On the other hand, we feel secure and undisturbed; we are able to do as we please.”

Quite a useful resource in this regards has been the reader ‘Home possessions: Material Culture behind closed doors’ edited by Daniel Miller. In his introduction he explains the focus on material culture and how it also relates back to anthropology:

“If home is where the heart is, then it is also where it is broken, torn and made whole in the flux of relationships, social and material.” (Miller, 2001, 15)

This connection between social relationships and material culture will play a large part in my studies as well I assume. One of the questions I am interested in is the questions who initiates alterations around the house. People diagnosed with dementia themselves? Their partners or next of kin who live with them? Would they be initiated by someone coming in as a counsellor or advisor?

Around the house the borders between hacking and DIY become even more distorted. An example in popular culture is the collection of alterations to IKEA furniture done by ikeahackers, which is presented on a website with the same name. What stands in the foreground here I think is less the mastery and skill of the work undertaken – even though most objects/items look highly sophisticated – but more the fun and wit of the resulting object. The hacks range from minimal changes up to highly complicated structures within the home, such as a book case that doubles as a pull-down bed. The popular website pinterest brings up plenty of examples under the category “house hacks” which focus mostly on small ad-hoc alterations that can be done quickly and with materials commonly on hand.

Even though it has a special focus on kitchens, the paper “Kitchen Living in Later Life: Exploring Ergonomic Problems, Coping Strategies and Design Solutions” by Martin Maquire gives useful insights into this topic. Their study of people between 60 and 90 in their homes showed many alterations to enhance independent living and also gives insights into the methods used in their study. In addition to observing people in their kitchens the authors looked into the “kitchen histories” of the participants to get a better understanding of the values and everyday habits. Looking into the alterations and changed people made to their kitchens the authors sum up:

People were asked what changes or additions they hadmade in their kitchen. These included:
•Appliances: more plug sockets or better positioning;obtaining a dishwasher, automatic kettle, lighter iron,water filter tap, lever taps and new radiators.
•Environment: a light that can be lowered over the kitchentable; under or over or cupboard lighting; a mirror above the sink to reflect light from a glass panelled door, giving a view to the garden when washing up.
•Storage: additional cupboards (where space allowed);pull out shelves in cupboards.
•Cleaning: lighter colour flooring to show dirt; vinyl off-cuts on top of wall units so they can be removed and cleaned.
•Reaching and access: pull out shelves in cupboards;corner cupboards with revolving units for access.
•General: specially designed kitchen to meet needs (installed or planned) (Maguire, 2014, 84)
As has been a recurring theme within this blog, it is complex to evaluate which of these alterations would fall under DIY and which under hacking. From the descriptions neither the level of mastery nor the craftiness of the solutions can be evaluated, which shows that more detailed definitions and further classifications will be needed as this project develops if such as classification will become necessary.
Dyck (2005, 174) explore “home” and “house” particularly in regards to care and observe that:”Care is provided in spaces designed for other purposes, of varying sizes and conditions, and where there are strong associations with the notions of privacy and ‘family life’.” As their focus is not only on the house, but also on the interplay with the body, they consider the house as a material place:
“As a material site, its specific spatial arrangements, amenities, furnishings and location within a particular neighbourhood will be more or less enabling in the support of its occupants’ needs and desires. The home’s materiality is also a signifier of a person’s location within power relations that influence access to material resources, as well as culturally valued consumer goods.” (Dyck, 2005, 175 )
Important in regards to the topic of this research project, the notion of control becomes important. “Hacking” the environment might a way to regain control over oneself and ones surroundings which has further impact on the concept of identity:
“This ability to have control of the home environment is a critical dimension of the constitution of homespace as ‘caring space’ that is safe for a vulnerable social identity as well as the body’s material vulnerability.” (Dyck 2015, 179)
Drawing on the ways in which people started to use home computers in other ways that originally intended, Greenhalgh (2013, 87) propose a new way to look into telecare and telehealth and how it fits into the context of home:
“An alternative approach to delivery of telehealth and telecare might be to analyse what traditionally happens in the home in relation to living with chronic illness, and consider how these activities and practices could be digitally enabled.”
This alternative view towards the development of assistive technologies is one that also underpins my own research project and which will guide the methods of my project as well as possible outcomes.