When I was five years old I took apart an old rotary telephone. Actually I didn’t just take it apart – I dismantled it entirely. My youthful fingers, newly skilled with pliers and screwdrivers swiped from my father’s tool box, utterly decimated it. I was unstoppable. Every curly, colored wire was traced and pulled from its anchor. Every piece of metal was unscrewed from every other, from the easiest outermost elements to the trickiest embedded ones. My mind consumed the logic of assembly first through the destructive glee of disassembly, fueled by a native and innate desire to experiment. The phone was no longer a phone – it was a wild, chaotic inventory of spaghetti, electronic parts that, once dissassembled, only tangentially seemed to suggest telephony. A world of possibilities lay before me – while I knew I could never reassemble them into a working phone, perhaps I might build my own robot…
A few years later these mechanical and analytic tendencies were already well-developed and put well to use restoring the ebbing functionality of our sometimes-flaky stereo, television and Atari video game unit. But I had never successfully built that robot – the parts were eventually discarded as my mother was forced to buy another rotary phone from the phone company. Despite the vigor of my efforts they were occasionally ill-directed – understandably, my mother is unlikely ever to forget the time she came into my infant sister’s bedroom to find me hovering over her crib with a screwdriver, promising to use my mechanical skills to fix her slight case of lazy-eye. Thankfully, she intervened before my attempts at repair further damaged the object in question (my sister), but that was not always the case. My ongoing technological experimentation led to ever more spaghetti.
As I grew, computer technology grew around me. At age 8, the Apple II arrived in my life. Using the computer required a degree of mechanical skill and I was eagerly up to the challenge, soldering iron at the ready for any number of switches, relays or other elements needed to enable or disable some component or functionality. Occasionally triumphant and occasionally dashed by irretrievable errors of incompetence, I was still unstoppable in my effort to understand what was happening ‘inside the box.’ As the Apple II gave way to the Apple Macintosh, my confidence with the technology inside the device quickly extended to the exciting new field of software, enabled by the hypnotizing Graphical User Interface. It was there, in that world of pixels and movement, that the experimental fervor I had first experienced as a very young child found the greatest purchase. In software, one could copy code and modify the copy, leaving the original pristine – one could tweak and destroy and revert and destroy again. We were free to destroy, in order to learn to create. Reverse-engineering became productive as one could strip away all else but the element to be understood, and examine it in detail to better apprehend its syntax, structure, format and function.
In the twenty-first century, hardware has been sufficiently micro-miniaturized to dissuade all but the most advanced technologists from attempting physical repair and engineering tasks – the voiding of the warrantee an unassailable barrier to such invasive play. It is now almost exclusively in software that the end user’s creativity takes place. And while the sophistication of software has grown tremendously, allowing great strides in learning, the lack of connection to the box, the obscuring of the machine, alienates us and decontextualizes us from the nature of the technology with which we are grappling. It makes it difficult to differentiate between waves of innovation, coming ever faster, and leaves us breathless. Can that same glee of destruction apply when we are dealing not with actual (limited) elements, but virtual (unlimited) instantiations? What does it mean to the development of one’s ability to grapple with chaos when the spaghetti is symbolic, easily reverted back to order?