Phoenix Perry: Forward Futures

There were a lot of very technical talks at Hackaday Belgrade. That’s no surprise, this is Hackaday after all. But every once in a while it’s good to lift our heads up from the bench, blow away some of the solder smoke, and remind ourselves of the reason that we’re working on the next cool project. Try to take in the big picture. Why are you hacking?

image5[Phoenix Perry] raised a lot of big-think points in her talk, and she’s definitely hacking in order to bring more women into the field and make the creation of technology more accessible to everyone. Lofty goals, and not a project that’s going to be finished up this weekend. But if you’re going to make a positive difference in the world through what you love to do, it’s good to dream big and keep the large goal on your mind.

[Phoenix] is an engineer by training, game-coder by avocation, and a teacher for all the right reasons. She’s led a number of great workshops around the intersection of art and technology: from physical controllers for self-coded games to interactive music synthesis devices disguised as room-sized geodesic domes. And she is the founder of the Code Liberation Foundation, a foundation aimed at teaching women technology through game coding. On one hand, she’s a hacker, but on the other she’s got her eyes on a larger social goal.

Nikolai Tesla and the Purpose of Technology

image8Particularly appropriate for a talk in Belgrade, [Phoenix] opened up with competing conceptions of the role of technology in the world. On one side is Nikola Tesla who had a radical vision for how technology should be integrated into society; it should be free, open, for the benefit of all. On the other side are people who seek to limit and capitalize on technology — making as much money for themselves as possible. [Phoenix] puts up J. P. Morgan as the bad guy here, contrasting Tesla’s dream of free energy for everyone with Morgan’s plans to get super-rich by monopolizing access to electricity and gas. She asks if we think technology should improve people’s lives or if it is just a means to make money.

Related, but not exactly the same idea, is the question of whether technological progress is limited or limitless. Are good ideas, developed and implemented, really a scarce commodity to be hoarded and milked for all they’re worth, or does the sharing of ideas lead to more ideas in a virtuous cycle? Even if the truth lies between these extremes, it’s worth stepping back and looking at how the incentives in our societies work against technological progress. Governments enforce intellectual monopolies on ideas through the granting of intellectual property rights, and firms operate with the only objective of maximizing profit or shareholder value. In this environment, it’s an uphill battle for the technological rebel.


[Phoenix] sees a schism between the makers and the technicians, and worries about what this is going to mean for technology. On the one hand you have the “Maker Movement”, which is basically white, male, and rich. She cited research into the cover of Make Magazine, and over nine years and 39 covers, 85% of the people on the cover are male, 15% of them are female, and 100% of them are white. Make‘s readership is also at the top of the income distribution. (Full disclosure: Hackaday’s audience, according to the analytics anyway, is even more male and although we’ve got a lot of student readers, those of you engineers out there with decent-paying jobs are bringing up our average salary as well.)

Her point is that there’s almost certainly other people out there — people who aren’t rich, not necessarily white or male — who are also tech hackers. Why aren’t they getting publicity, “movements”, or good jobs? [Phoenix] points out that a lot of these other people are on the assembly lines actually producing the technology: under-educated, often underpaid, and sometimes even skewing female.

image15[Phoenix] thinks that they’re being held back by economic and educational barriers. As the cost of higher education becomes more and more expensive, it limits the number (and type) of people that we have making technology. The share of tech jobs in the economy is on the rise, but at the same time the percentage of women in computing is falling. Why? As the cost of college tuition is skyrocketing, it certainly limits the prospects of someone whose parents don’t have a few hundred thousand dollars sitting around, or who is not willing to go that far into debt.

What to Do?

On the other side, we see the rise of “alternative STEM education” — the self-taughts and the people teaching each other for free. The ready availability of information shared on the Internet and through hackerspaces can be a powerful antidote to the exclusivity of expensive higher education. [Phoenix] asks us to look out for other barriers to bringing everyone along on the quest for new technology, and think of ways to work around them.

image6But all of the alternative education in the world won’t help if employers aren’t hiring these people, and if the workplace is biased against them. [Phoenix] claims that this next step is a cultural barrier, and that what’s needed is therefore a cultural change. She makes a list of ten things to change in our (work) culture. As with alternative education, we see a lot of these points being addressed, from codes of conduct in our hackerspaces to a de-emphasis of formal training over practical experience in coding.

But then she turns to the kind of projects that we make, and asks if they’re “deeply” accessible. That is, does it make it easier for people to modify and build with the technology that it embodies, or does it hide things about what’s really going on. Do the things we build help bring others into the field? We think that’s an interesting additional angle to view our hacks from, and certainly a noble goal.

“You are responsible for inclusion and diversity in technology and culture.”

Broadening the Technological Gene Pool

And so why do we care about any of this? Because [Phoenix] thinks that technological ideas are like genes, and the sum of them that are shared are like our collective gene pool. The more variety that we’ve got in the gene pool, the better off we all are — the more kooky ideas that brush up against each other and make the next big thing.

That’s something that we can really get behind here at Hackaday. We try to see the best side of every project we post, and summarize the aspects that we think are most likely to inspire you. We definitely lean toward [Phoenix] and Tesla’s view of the role of technology in human society — that technology should enrich our lives and that we do it best as a community working together, and that means sharing rather than hoarding ideas.

Follow Phoenix Perry on Twitter: @PhoenixPerry

42 thoughts on “Phoenix Perry: Forward Futures

    1. With things being declared problematic, calls for “diversity” and a technological gene pool seemingly being used as an euphemism for the actual gene pool of hackers and geeks it sure seems like that’s the case.

      1. This diversity euphemism is something that only you perceived and then had to point it out in a negative light. Setting the stage for the next crazy to come out of the woodwork and decry the evils of diversity. And here I thought that the Nazis lost WWII

    2. With things being declared problematic, calls for “diversity” and a technological gene pool seemingly being used as an euphemism for the actual gene pool of hackers and geeks it sure seems like it.

    3. Seriously Rev?
      Reporting on a conference presentation, and the background and goals of the presenter is hardly SJ —
      Might as well be complaining that reporting on the shakeup with arduino trademarks and company split wasn’t a hack.

    4. if a black/woman wants to do technology there is nothing stopping them.
      we really need to stop forcing and bribing women into science, sorry, ‘encouraging’ them. in my experience the only women who do electrical courses in further education have no interest in being there but get paid for it. to make the numbers look better i suppose? i’m sure there are women and black people really interested in these things, but i haven’t met any.

      1. I’m currently a 24 year old female thats been trying to get into electronics for about 10 years. Not only have I grown up in poverty and within a non STEM supporting household, I’ve been trying to find my own way. My parents weren’t in any STEM field, and although my uncles and older cousins were old school hackers from the 80s, no one took the time to show me anything even though I presented my interest with thoughtful questions.

        I tried joining many early maker spaces in my city, but couldn’t afford the price as I could barely afford food and transit to my high school. I tried asking for an electronics course, but my teachers were under funded. And I certainly tried teaching myself, but ran into some REALLY uncomfortable barriers such as sexual harassment and abuse while trying to find a mentor who would help me build projects (at the age of 16, and these people were like 40 years old).

        So instead I turned to arts and product design. And 10 years later, I have all the supplies and resources I need to build robots, and make cool shit happen. But I’m behind. Very behind the peers that had the resources, support, and inclusion in the culture of electronics.

        Hackaday and other hobbyist blogs have been one of the only resources where I have been able to access this culture.

        Electronics are expensive, mentors are hard to find, and although I had a cool hacker uncle that would occasionally show me things… I wasn’t allowed to touch his stuff. So I’m sorry if you haven’t found these women or ‘POC’s into electronics but we exist.

        1. pff is an idiot. Good luck to you! I’m a guy but ‘hacking’ wasn’t encouraged for me either.
          You’re ahead already! I’m 30 and consider myself a beginner. Visit the scrap yards and please make sure the HV capacitors in anything you take apart are shorted out first. I wish you the best and not every guy is like that, but unfortunately I know what must have gone through.
          I wish EVERY maker, hacker, tinker’er the best! Don’t let the world think you can’t ‘do it’. You can.

        2. Trying to get into electronics for 10 years is a long time of trying, anything.

          Forest m Mims’s books (i used to buy these at radio shack when i was a kid)

          Allaboutcircuits probably the best starting point for a beginner.

          Texas instruments just released a free pdf version and a $5.00 paperback version of the Analog Engineers handbook for opamps, etc.

          Given the ubiquity of the internet, I don’t understand how people are “underserved” in electronics, at all, in 2016.

        3. In your case what was holding you back was lack of funds, refusal of your immediate community to support you, and sexual harassment. While these things aren’t unique to certain races and genders they are not proportionately distributed among them. Hence they are often mistaken for racial and gender based hindrances. This distinction is important because a problem cannot be solved without understanding its cause.

      2. If you haven’t met any it’s probably because you live somewhere out in the wilderness….in a mountain maybe or quite possibly under a bridge.

        hey pff & friends….
        The 1950’s called. They wanted your ignorant ass racist and sexist views back

        1. I don’t think anything I said was ignorant or ass racist, I was simply sharing my experience of the system here. If a woman or a black wants to do electronics/programming/stem then honestly i couldn’t care less, just like i don’t care what anyone does because its up to them to do what they want, its none of my business.
          bl1 below makes a good point, the universities here are similar in that the government will fund further education for nationals however the university turns away a large number of national students in favor of foreign students because they can charge the foreign government more money. Most of the students on these schemes don’t know enough english to follow the course but business is business.

          The story of the 24 y/o above suffering harassment and abuse is certainly worrying but I fell sorry for them mostly, if you have access to a library (or the internet but to a lesser extent) then you could probably do without a mentor. When i was at school I was the only student signed up for Technology to learn electronics formally, They couldn’t give me a teacher and classroom to myself so I sat at the back of another class and worked through the notes and exercises by myself. My family couldn’t afford a computer, i didn’t have internet so i walked 10 round trip to the nearest library and spent my weekends reading books about programming without ever touching a computer. Why do you feel you need someone to mentor you, you can’t learn things by yourself? You can’t find things that interest you and do them by yourself? You can’t just look things up when you get stuck? If you are getting into it now and enjoying it then good for you.

          1. If you seriously didn’t mean it the way we took it, than I’m sorry for my insult. But your comment had multiple points that read as ‘I don’t care about these people’.
            Stereotyping that women and minorities can’t, won’t, or only do something because of (insert reason here) came off as ignorance and/or malace.
            And for your last point about mentoring, some people like to learn from more experienced people. That’s why we have teachers and professors.

    5. I don’t have clue where Tactule resides, but I never understood social justice being the bogyman it is in the USA. Even though the government in the USA is more accurately described as a government of the merchant, by the merchants, for the merchants; our Declaration of Independence has social justice written all over it.

      1. Some people with privilege just want things to stay as they are, i.e. favouring them. They think that any effort to bring more women or non-whites into STEM is a threat to their jobs and income. Like more people will make it harder for them to compete and drive down wages, when actually the opposite tends to be true.

        1. Treating women and non whites as if they are children that can’t do anything on their own seems horribly racist and misogynistic. How about we judge people on merit and not on genitals or color? and help those who have legitimate need for it, like being unable to afford education, regardless of what other random characteristic they were born

  1. Interesting talk. I think one problem is that she is using Make magazine as a benchmark for “Making” (the magazine is so expensive those are people that can afford it…) and maybe even using the term “Maker” to describe this type of individual. I think she is more pointing out the commercialization of the whole hacking scene by entities like Make and related places. Yes it gives the whole thing more exposure … but it puts the cloak on the whole thing. I think she is thinking too hard about this. Everything is money driven. If we can make money by putting a chip on a board and selling it … then someone is going to do it. By doing so they are filling a need/void whatever. The need is there by the curious people that were too confused before the simplified board or scared of doing something. If those Sparkfun boards didn’t exist then the chances that some of those individuals would not have gotten into making something. That is where Arduino, Sparkfun, Make and everything comes into play. Just like Radio Shack before they went all Cell Phone on us. The components were limited… they were expensive… and yes we could order them from somewhere else. But … we have to start somewhere. So let’s continue spreading the word, showing people our cool projects, generating questions and curiosity from everyone and pass some knowledge around. I am aware that there is a lot more to the video presentation that this… Maybe I am missing her point though. I am sure someone will correct me.

    1. The reason that board makes me crazy is because it actually makes that chip *harder* to use. Now vs just plugging it into your breadboard, you need to solder wires, then connect those wires to the breadboard. It’s an added, complex step requiring yet another skill. You go from being able to make a LED matrix on your breadboard to now needing a soldering iron and learning to solder. (which is awesome and maybe I could support this if that was the reason? However, they have the same kind of breadboard for buttons. Yes. Buttons. Breadboard-able buttons.)

      Also, since this talk, I found out Leah Buechley’s talk I cite here has some problems and there have been updates to these numbers. The folks at Make care about their diversity, it’s just a bigger problem within our culture and it’s easy to point here, but it’s oversimplifying – I agree.

      Overall, I’m a huge fan of what the folks at Make do and you can’t separate a thing that large from the culture it is within and it’s that I’m trying to point at. This kind of was a rough version of this talk and I think I actually made the point far better at Maker Faire. Those slides are here ->

      1. I kinda think with the Sparkfun thing that it is more who it is aimed at. Which seems to be someone at an early hobby level who might or might not ever seriously look into the field? Maybe someone who was just moved past prefab Arduino shields? Personally I have a bit of trouble understanding it myself because we are on the same page. In this instance it isn’t even a question for me, I would opt for the more economical breadboard friendly DIP alternative. I’d probably go to Mouser or Digikey before I’d go to eBay but I certainly wouldn’t rule eBay out.

        Admittedly I have purchased a few breakouts in my time. Mostly when the options have come down to SMT or BGA. Since for me they both represent more expense and trouble than they are worth to me for a one off board.

        The key to me seems to be educating people to know when to look for and how to find the alternatives. The same goes for the whole Make(r) thing, I’ve personally never really been interested in it because the alternatives have always been readily accessible. Plus it’s always struck me as more of a brand name than anything else.

      2. I see your point. The bare DIP chip would have been easier to use on a bread board…. and you don’t need any extra headers for it either. However if you were just throwing stuff together with the soldering iron and did not have good soldering skills that board may be a good choice for prototyping. Breadboard use though us questionable.

        I do not like all the commercialization of the hacking/making scene. I think you were making that point in your talk. It funnels everyone into being consumers of sorts and into thinking that you need to buy an Arduino or a breakout board to make something. I totally agree with that point. It makes me feel queasy whenever I think about it deeply. (Consumerism in general does that when you think about the waste generated and slave like feeling it brings to a certain extent…) On the flip side though it makes things more obtainable in general and gets more people into the hobby and therefore has more chance of people in general making a career of lifetime skill out of it probably more so than if it were not so commercialized.

        I too used to buy stuff at Radio Shack. It took me quite a few years to figure out better places to buy things. I still go there to pick something up quickly.

        Thanks for the provoking thoughts.

      3. On the sparkfun board: I didn’t write that up much b/c I think I totally disagree with you Phoenix (with respect!), but the point is important.

        I would claim that breaking the 8 binary-coded outputs into an ordered row and labelling stuff is user-friendly. It means you don’t have to go back to the datasheet to wire stuff up. You can put pinheaders on it if you want it breadboardable. I say this b/c I made something similar for myself long before there was a Sparkfun, and I still use it for prototyping today. But I’ve only made _one_, and it’s a tool rather than a component, which is part of what you’re getting at.

        Sparkfun also has open schematics and etc, and there’s always the datasheet (that you’d have to consult anyway when using the bare chip). The info is all there when you need it, and the board is handy when you don’t.

        But your point that it obfuscates the chip is also right. This compromise, between making the barrier to entry super-low and making the tool something that encourages growth, is tricky and moves depending on the experience level of your target audience. Is looking up a pinout in a datasheet an unnecessary distraction, or a learning experience? It can be either.

        I feel about Arduino the way you feel about the ‘595 BOB. Changing the pin names? Re-arranging them in some crazy way? Forcing you to disable the on-board regulator just to get decent battery life out of AA cells?!?! Fixed crystal at 16MHz? WTF? But I’m wrong about Arduino. It was the right tradeoff between obfuscation / simplification for a whole ton of people.

        As simple as posible, but no simpler. But recognize that it depends on the audience and the situation.

    2. Sure Make magazine is un-affordable for many, but not really more expensive than other narrow interest magazines in the book store. I see no reason why to judge those who can afford them harshly. Book and magazines are tool and like tools they can be made more affordable by cooperative efforts.

  2. And interesting thing I have learned since this talk is that Leah Buechley’s stats I site on Make’s cover need an update. They’ve kept an eye to diversity over the last few years and it’s interesting to note that a org as large as Make can’t be solely responsible for the culture it is situated within.

  3. in 25 years time, being in software in the bay area, I’ve never once had a female come in for an interview and get turned down for a job -because- she was a female.

    not sure I ever saw a female get turned down, PERIOD, for a job. its true there are lots of males in software eng, but they all would be quite happy to have females on the team. managers, too, feel that way.

    I can’t see this being a fault of companies. companies are doing all they can to actually overcompensate and hire women instead of men, all else being equal.

    schools don’t reject women for any program they want to register for.

    if there are barriers, its either social (and both men and women own some of that resp.) or its self-imposed by choice.

    the jobs are out there. and women can get tech jobs just fine.

    bigger problem: if you are local – male or female – you are often passed over in favor of h1b. THIS is what the sjw’s should be chiming in about. its not black/white or male/female. its h1b vs local. this is what is a TRUE barrier for entry. its about cost and other things (indentured servitude is the phrase that is commonly used) and so even when you apply for jobs, if you are local, you are rarely on the A-list for the employer.

    please address this, sjw’s. this is what is going to happen to all of us who live here and do ‘thinking jobs’. no reason to hire locals if ‘thinking’ can be sent offshore or onshored by h1b. and this affects us all and its a REAL issue.

    1. Oh don’t worry they already are ……

      I remember reading an article that dealt with the fact that the body responsible for issuing the H1Bs wasn’t releasing gender information about those to whom they where being issued. I just sorta sat there in disbelief thinking to myself that of all the things that are so very wrong with the whole scheme and all these people losing their jobs to outsourcing ….. that was the issue they decided to take with it.

    2. bl, on your h1b point I more or less agree. But what needs to be made clear here is that the brown/yellow foreigner who just landed an h1b VISA and is merely trying to make living isn’t fundamentally the problem. The real problem is with the legislators and business leaders who manufactured the h1b program (they tend to be predominantly white males BTW), with the purpose of maximizing profits for their corporations by gutting the middle and working classes in this country regardless of race, sex or ethnicity.

      So it really bugs me when I see people blaming Mexicans or Asians or other minorities for losing their jobs, while the true culprits; the CEOs and the senators, are laughing all the way to the bank and the halls of power.

  4. All in all a mixed bag for me. In short there is a cost involve in proving electrical power and communications services, expecting that to be free is unrealistic. The decision to make one’s original discoveries available for free is a choice of the individual, but again there may be a cost involved, but the individual should be criticized of they try to recoup the cost. That brings up point # 8 Tesla gave away his ideas; so why are you belly aching when Westinghouse sold a clone of that $40 board for $15? The sparkfun product, let the market decide. Be prepared to see similar boards, I believe sparkfun is, looking to serve a market I predicted emerging long ago. As more and more IC are no longer manufactured in through hole packages there will be those who would rather purchase boards like this so they can stay with familiar construction techniques. For they locating such and such a pin on the IC isn’t important as long as they can trust the silk screen labels. I’m on board with others teaching others with the caveat of there may be ignorant teachers spreading their ignorance. sorry y in regard to the sparkfun board you’re wasting energy sweating the small stuff not worth sweating. That’s not good for the students. Could it be the Make magazine cover accurately depicts those who submit projects to Make that the editors deem worthy of publication? I hate bigotry, but intentional practice of it is hard to prove.

  5. Why has this become a social justice issue ? What are the demographics of stamp collecting, RC model building, video gaming or any of the other nerdy hobbies ? Yeah, nerdy middle aged boys with disposable income. If you want to do it, then do it, everyone is welcome, but don’t make it your agenda. Jeez.

  6. I couldn’t agree with you enough in regards to how ridiculous this “value added” environment that surrounds the maker community. I despise the attitude that PCB designs are worth ripping people off for. I despise even more the attitude that somehow spending more money on something makes things easier or better. People spend all this money on meters that cost more than $5 and act like somehow their $500 fluke actually helps them accomplish some job… Or spending more than $50 on a hot air rework station gives you a better station. Complicated reflow ovens, IR stations, and the like. It’s all ridiculous. The best way to succeed at this is to FAIL FAIL FAIL, because on the 3rd or 4th try you’ll succeed. If you spent all your money and effort trying to do something right the first time, you’re gonna have a bad day. Buy cheap. Buy lots. Need 1? Buy 10. Fail quick. You’ll still succeed faster, spend less and have far more to show for it than the alternative.

  7. Much of this is echoing in my own life right now. I’ve been working on getting my amateur radio license and listening on the air to get some familiarity with the terms and procedures. I typically hear conversations talking about arduinos and raspberry pi’s … and usually some discussion about struggling to get the thing to do what they want it to do. Where this pains me to some degree is I have a bachelor of science in electronics technology, yet I can’t respond (yet) to help them out. Sometimes the answer is very simple, but until the FCC gets me my call sign, I have to wait to see about catching up with these guys.

    One of the things I’d really like to do is to help some of these guys to not see the technology as a barrier, but to see it as something that can enable yet another round of ideas and improvements to their rigs.

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