I was very lucky to be invited to speak Pecha Kucha style with a group of incredible thinkers and doers on the theme – “Technology You Can’t Live Without” – at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre.
Original Photo on Toastwife’s Flickr
The event was facilitated by the phenomenally talented Dr Aleks Krotoski and included:
Bill Thompson, Technology correspondent, BBC
Margaret Robertson, writer and consultant, Lookspring
Tassos Stevens, Director, Coney
Matt Jones, Director, Design, BERG
Charles Arthur, Technology Editor, The Guardian
Jemima Kiss, New Media correspondent, The Guardian
Rex Crowle (aka Rexbox), Director of Visual Playfulness
A quick reminder: PechaKucha 20×20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. This means that presentations last about 6 minutes and are pretty mad and dynamic as you don’t have any control over your slides – you merely have to keep up!
I chose to talk about Stickytape and it went something like this:
I recently completed a sociology PhD during which I spent a year living with a community wifi group and also with a group of freakbike makers. During this research I noticed one particular technology central in both groups that was easily found, cheaply purchased and critical to their making practices……
I’m going to briefly talk about it in three ways:
– Stickytape as a technology itself
– As a fixer of existing tech
– And finally the role I believe it plays in new tech innovation and development
At the end of this 6 and a bit minutes, you will come to realise that Stickytape is not only a technology you cannot live without but it is also a metaphor for life.
What do I mean by stickytape?
I use sticky tape as a moniker for anything that is in tape form and adhesive or sticky so, I include Sellotape, Scotch, Gaffa tape, Duct tape or duck tape, Fusion, Packing, Invisible, Double sided, Electrical, Insulation and Masking. This is a small list as apparently more than 900 tape varieties have been developed over the last century.
Although, the earliest reference to a sticky kind of tape was in 1676 by lute makers, one of the reasons it really took off in the early 20th century had to do, ironically, with the depression. During this period of rationing, stickytape became a key tool to in the ‘make do and mend’ movement as people were anxious to repair rather than replace things. It became an indispensible part of everyday life.
Image: Taken by Thomas Frederick Scales, Nov 1918 – http://timeframes.natlib.govt.nz
Because it was so familiar and ubiquitous, it was easy for me to overlook the presence of sticky tape in the first few months of my research, I was otherwise distracted by what I considered to be more exotic and strange ethnographic objects. Yet, sticky tape is stubborn, it kept appearing and not just in the home and office but in backyards, sheds, pockets, toolboxes, car boots and backpacks. Even when it was not being used, it was evoked as a way of working.
Stickytape might at first appear pretty trivial and boring, yet the mundane holds a special place in sociological studies. Many writers attend to the idea that seemingly unremarkable things make explicit the taken-for-granted ways in which we make meaning in everyday life. What this means is that boring things often have a lot to tell about society.
This image shows stickytape in the role of fixing tech. The thing about all new digital tech is that it falls over. It breaks. Regularly. And it is often held together by some fix or patch. And tape – in its many guises – just makes that more visible. We have all become fixers and menders of a wide range of new technologies. Technology tinkering is an everyday activity.
And it is not just new digital technologies that break. Here is a lawn mower that was destined for the dump. Its push handle had rusted and it was impossible to use. So, the owner got ‘a bit of tree and a bit of tape’ and some creative thinking to recreate the handle. Stickytape, and this owner’s ingenious and resourceful fix, gave the mower a new life.
Here sticky tape creates new relationships between objects. It is used to join things together that do not at first appear to fit – a bike frame and bike light in absence of an appropriate bracket. It’s an incredibly simple and effective hack that fixed an immediate problem – that of getting home in the dark. It enabled the person to adapt and respond to changing circumstances.
Sticky tape can also get people out of fixes. This plane was destroyed by a bear in Alaska after the pilot left food in it over night. The next day the pilot called for spare tyres, some plastic sheeting and three boxes of gaffa. He patched the plane and flew it home. What you can see emerging in these instances is not just a quick fix but something else which leads into my second type of stickytape use; innovation and adaptation.
Here tape was used on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. When a fender on the moonbuggy broke, the astronauts fixed it using maps, clamps and duct tape. Not only is it interesting that duct tape was carried on moon missions but that it literally works anywhere.
Image: Science @ NASA – www.science.nasa.gov
Sticky tape is also fundamental in making new ideas. This is an antenna made by the community wifi group. The gaffa prevents the jagged edges from cutting fingers. It may not have the most technical application here but it plays a critical role in that it gives the user means to experiment, to try new things without feeling the need to finish or polish them. Things, artefacts, ideas are left open to possibility and change.
Similarly, tape plays a vital role in the world of freakbike makers who rescue abandoned bikes and re-configure them, thereby challenging the nature of the bike and the conventions of cycling. They trial impossible ideas and if they have ‘mechanicals’ along the way they can fix them as they go. A bike maker rarely goes out for a ride without a roll of gaffa.
This film still shows David Wallace’s experiment to make his iTouch work using a mouthstick, some copper wire, a stylus and stickytape. As a quadriplegic, David’s work powerfully shows not only the complex work-arounds needed for disabled use but how some new technologies are increasingly inaccessible for those who cannot touch them.
Image by David Wallace at www.lifekludger.net
Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 2.5 Australia License
This is yet another much simpler yet nevertheless innovative use of stickytape. Here, tape gives an object that already had one life, another new one. In this case it is a wallet is made from long life milk and juice packs. Stickytape enables a way of thinking, a way of approaching a problem with no format, no rules, that is open to unconventional processes and methods. What this means is that you can make things up as you go along.
This artefact is probably familiar to those of you who make or mend your own clothes. Because stickytape is temporary, it can be reversed, removed. This means you don’t need to think about it for a long time. You don’t need special tools. And you don’t to be right every time. Unlike other conventional binding agents – you get a second chance.
Stickytape can also just be used to customise technology as illustrated by this bike in Austria. In this world of mass production consumer items, stickytape offers a way to indelibly personalise your technology – showing that it is not just in what you do with tech, but what you do to it that also counts. And besides, the sculptural qualities of sticky tape are well overlooked.
Image by flickr user Alimander
Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share Alike 2.0 Generic
The world is full of stickytape stories – and to some they are a poor fix, a lazy response. It is easy to mock them. But what I argue is that there is innovation at play in many cases. It gets you involved in making stuff– makes you think you can do things, change things – re-imagine how things might be. Stickytape epitomises an experimental approach. It is emblematic of being able to fix anything.
By and far, stickytape makes motley, mutts, bits of this and bits of that. Here is a letterbox made of wood, nails, plastic and tape. It shows how innovations do not have to be revolutionary or completely new, instead value is perceived in unique re-combinations of existing materials and problems. And these are skills that are highly regarded in the global technology marketplace.
Stickytape is an essential in the tinkerers toolkit. But because we have all become tinkerers, it is essential tool for life. And as our world’s resources get ever more limited and precious, these skills and innovative approaches will become even more critical to making the most of what we have.
Stickytape is a technology that I and I imagine you cannot live without.
Image: Sticker by Institute of Backyard Studies – http://www.ibys.org/
A very big thankyou to everyone who contributed to this talk in some way or another: Genevieve Bell, Leah Bennetts, Leon Cmielewski, James Fraser, Jennifairy Gillett, Tillie Harris, Robert Hart, Janet Hawkin, Kim Hawkin, David Wallace, Joseph Jofish Kaye, Gray McKinnel, Paul Schulz, Mike Seyfang, Lyn Stephens, Mark Thomson, Seabird, Mike Seyfang and The Supreme Overlord Gravox.