Arduino and the storytellers

What happens when the political economy of free/open source software is translated to the production and circulation of physical objects? This is one of the questions that intrigues me about Arduino. I attended last Friday the premiere in Medialab-Prado of a film that tells the history of this electronic project under the title Arduino. The documentary. For those not into the world of electronics, Arduino is an Open Source hardware that tries to translate the philosophy of Free and Open Source software into electronics. It is defined as:

an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. Arduino can sense the environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors and can affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators…

The main idea of free/open source software (this of free flow of knowledge without the restriction imposed by copyright; ok, it is much more than this) has been translated into very different domains like music, books and movies (I wrote about it when I worked as a journalist, even on open source hardware seven years ago!). In all these cases we are dealing with non-material objects that circulate easily on the Internet; but what happens when the political economy of open source is translated to the production and circulation of material objects that cannot travel instantly and so easily around the globe? This situation is closer to the classical work (v.g. Mauss) that has sometimes been used for approaching the analysis of free software. But while there is a huge literature of social analysis of free/open source software there is still very limited work on open source hardware. It is not so strange if we consider that the first Open Source Hardware Definition was published last week! But leaving this aside, I guess that there are many issues to be discussed. A small example of the implications of the physicality of objects: one of the advantages of Arduino is the reduced price of their electronic boards: around 30 dollars (sometimes three or four times below the price of similar products); however, when you send a board to some countries in South America it is taxed with 100 dollars in the custom. The price advantaged is lost.

‘Arduino. The documentary’ is a good starting point to get into the history of Arduino, directed by a friend Rodrigo Calvo and Raúl Alejos and produced by the art centre LABoral. But after attending the premiere I can say that I was most interested by David Cuartielles, one of the initial developers of Arduino (together with Massimo Banzi and Tom Igoe, David Mellis y Nicholas Zambetti) than by the documentary itself. And I left the place with a bunch of questions. While the documentary shows Arduino in non controversial terms, in a few minutes Cuartielles made very explicit the difficulties of sustaining a project like this mentioning the small details and nuances that make of a successful project a living entity with small battles that have to be fought everyday. Two details: Cuartielles is a showman, he knew very well how to connected with all the people in the room, but his humorous style could sometimes be a problem, as he recognized: a joke in a mainlining list could delay a line of work in Arduino for months; another example: difficulties in the style of work of the promoters of the project as a consequence, he attributed, to their national cultures (Italian, Spanish, US American).

However, it seems that Arduino have become a success in the world of electronics with something like 120.000 users in their website since the project was launched in 2005. A recent article published in the website of the magazine Make (the Bible of DIY enthusiasts that devote its January issue to Arduino) celebrated this success under the title: Why the Arduino Won and Why It’s Here to Stay. It pointed to two interesting issues of the project that Cuartielles mentioned in his intervention at Medialab-Prado. The first is that Arduino has ‘opened’ the electronic to social groups that were not traditionally involved with electronic: young people and artists. The second issue is the community around it. They are indeed one and the same dimension of Arduino as the community that Banzi and Cuartielles initially targeted for the project were students and artists. For getting these groups involved Arduino has been designed under the maxim of simplicity, a simplicity interpreted by hardcore electronic engineers as a technical limitations (if not failure): “Arduino: baby-talk programming for pothead” – ArnoldB, AVRfreaks.net, quoted in the Make magazine article.

But coming but to the issue of the community, anytime I listen to people like Marcos García of Medialab-Prado, Hernani Díaz of re:farm the city or even David Cuartielles, I get more convinced that they are not speaking of cultural centers, urban farms or electronic but of building communities. Community, community, community is the word repeated once and again. But, how are these communities grown?

I guess that we tend to think in these projects as something that is done (a electronic board, a cultural centre…) and around which a community is gathered in response; but I have the feeling that things work the other way around. It is not a community that crystallizes around a project, but a project that is brought into life as the consequence of building a community.

An example from re:farm the city, a project of ‘urban farms’ based on (guess what?) Arduino and free software that was partly developed at Medialab-Prado. Hernani Días has been travelling around the globe for the last two years building communities of ‘urban farmers’ in different cities (Barcelona, París, New York, Buenos Aires…) as part of his project. I remember a conversation with Hernani in which by the way he talked seemed to me that the aim of the project was not really growing plants but cultivating communities. Or put in a different way, Hernani was cultivating communities of people that were cultivating plants. So, could be said that re:farm the city is more a project for re-farming the city with communities than with plants?

A second issue related to the growing of communities. As I have said, Cuartielles is a showman (in a good sense), and I remember a passage in Chris Kelty’s Two Bits in which he tells how in an occasion he had to tell the story of the project Connexion he was researching (an open textbook project) because Richard Baraniuk, one of their creators, had not arrived on time to the conference: “I’m trying to tell a story to the assembled group—a story that I have heard Rich Baraniuk tell a hundred times—but I’m screwing it up. Rich always gets enthusiastic stares of wonder, light-bulbs going off everywhere, a subvocalized “Aha!” or a vigorous nod. I, on the other hand, am clearly making it too complicated” (247). So the question is: how important for these projects to grow is the ability of their promoters to be good storytellers? How relevant is their ability to tell a good story of what they are doing and transmit their passion and hope? Many questions. A good starting point.

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