Ahmed Mohamed is not the first Maker with a project that upset people who didn’t understand it. Technology projects can look scary to the uninitiated. Several big names in this field have had to deal with the reactions engendered by their projects.
Their experiences, and Ahmed’s, offer the Maker community a chance to reflect on the things we build and how they are perceived.
Here are five more Makers who built gizmos that others found upsetting. You may agree with their approach to tinkering, or you may not. In some of the cases, upsetting people was the goal. But for many Makers, scaring people is an unfortunate and unforeseen side effect of tinkering with technology.
Back in 1967, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was arrested for building a metronome and storing it in a friend’s locker. He rigged a tin-foil contract sensor to the metronome in the locker, and set up the device to tick faster when his buddy opened the locker.
Woz recalled his reaction on Facebook.
I couldn’t hold my laughter when Principal Bryld told me how he extracted the ‘bomb’, ran out to the football field, and dismantled it. I wound up spending a night in ‘juvie.’ I did teach other inmates there how they could remove the electric wires from an overhead fan and attach them to the metal bars [to] shock the guards.
Before she founded Adafruit, Limor “Ladyada” Fried ran afoul of the MIT Campus Police. While pursuing her Master’s degree at the MIT Media Lab, exploring the Design Noir philosophy outlined by Anthony Dunne in Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, she attached a black project box to a parking garage girder with a note explaining the device was an Art project for Course 6 EE.
Though formally disciplined by MIT, Fried now subversively displays the reprimand as Selected feedback on my work on her personal website.
On September 21, 2007, Star Simpson, wearing a custom LED-accessorized hoodie and holding a DIY clay rose, arrived at Logan International Airport to pick up a friend. It did not go well. Upon entering the airport, her attire set into motion the response of 40 security personnel, some with MP5 submachine guns. They arrested and charged her with possessing a hoax bomb device.
After a multiple court appearances, Simpson was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and write a letter of apology. You can make your own version of her shirt here.
Steve Mann is a cyborg. No joke. And he alleges he was assaulted in a Paris McDonald’s for wearing his cybernetic seeing device, EyeTap. The device in question, a custom electronics forerunner of Google Glass, requires specialized tools to remove as it is literally wired to Mann’s brain. While his assailants were trying to remove what they thought was a wacky looking pair of spy glasses, they were in fact jeopardizing Mann’s safety.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Hirschberg made it clear he “knew exactly what [he] was doing” when he was a kid:
When I was in high school I screwed a bunch of electronics, blinking lights, dials, and a telephone handset into a briefcase and took it on the New York subway system. People were bug-eyed when they saw me take that out. Some even changed seats.
I also loaded a tape recorder and microphone / transmitter (they were bigger back then) into a brief case and strutted it about high school as a surveillance device. That got a rise out of people. I knew exactly what I was doing.
I once took the tape recorder briefcase rig along with an FM wireless transmitter to the appliance store. I then tuned every radio to my frequency. And promptly broadcast an Emergency Broadcast System style alert that New York was under nuclear attack. I was very proud.
These were obviously the kinds of stunts that would get anyone arrested (or worse) today.
Who is Responsible?
If you build something the world has never seen, whose responsibility is it to mind the reactions of the people who see it? Yours? The people? The media’s? What if your project resembles an item that’s specifically designed to look destructive, like a gun, or even a toy or prop weapon?
Perhaps you’ve built something that, intentionally or not, freaked someone out. What did you learn from the experience?
And what lessons can we all learn from Ahmed’s clock?