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Magical vs. Hackable

Computers & Mobile Education Technology
Magical vs. Hackable
With the greater freedom that complete operating systems provide, we can more fully understand the underlying architectures that drive the future.

I meet more and more folks in education that are contemplating swapping out laptops with complete operating systems like Linux, Max OSX, or Windows in favor of tablets (or most recently the advent of Chromebooks).

I get it. They’re cheaper than market alternatives and are extremely portable.

I own an iPad. I use it to lean back and to read, or maybe interact a bit with people I know online.

But I never use it to create.

This week I’ve been rolling up my sleeves and learning Ruby on Rails, met with challenges and frustrations of configuring my system to push commits of source code to GitHub and production deployments to Heroku (a neat site that hosts sites for testing purposes).

It’s been a mess. But in three days I’ve learned more about a new topic that I can apply to the creation of new things than I have by consuming on my iPad.

I’ve been able to think in broader terms, hatching two collaborative projects with student fellows that further tend to the mission of what we do around here, and what we hope to accomplish for the St. Louis region writ large.

The problem is that tablets strike us with awe by their magic, seven sensors that can help track our every movement, providing us with detailed data about our daily lives. This is cool, but creates an illusionary distance between us and the technology that drives these experiences. Furthermore, we’re tied to proprietary systems that no doubt provide elegance to our user experience, but leave much to be desired with regards to how things work. This is undoubtably better for the market in general, but for many of us (and more importantly, those younger than us who don’t quite know they are like “us” yet), it poses problems.

Instead, with the greater freedom that complete operating systems provide, we can more fully understand the underlying architectures that drive the future. We can tinker with sensors ourselves with arduinos. We can create dynamic webpages with ruby on rails. We can even take our computers apart (gasp!) and understand their inner-workings, hacking ourselves to more complete understandings of how computer hardware can be improved.

I’m in favor of more complete systems because, while not being sufficient conditions for creating the next generations of inventors, engineers, and makers, it certainly is necessary to do so.

I’m saddened to see the limits of these devices for creative applications, especially based on my experience with the popup makerspace. Only two teachers brought laptops. And only those two teachers were able to install the Arduino IDE and the Ruby IRB directly on their own machines, creating a barrier between them using their own device and having to borrow one of ours. One of the students tried to install the ide on his chromebook he brought from home (another version of this “magical vs. hackable” story), but was distressed to find out he couldn’t. “This is my only computer,” he said. “What if I want to continue Arduino on my own?” I wanted to give him a Linux laptop, like the ones we’ve given our student fellows at the Disruption Department, but I decided to let him go down that road on his own. A Chromebook for $249 is an interesting proposition for schools and individuals alike, but I’ll take a 4-year-old donated laptop with Xubuntu any day, and watch as people explore. That’s what tinkering is all about.

Original post on The Disruption Department

gregory_hill_profile_picGregory Hill
liked taking things apart, playing video games, memorizing sports statistics, and eating a lot as a kid. He studied Latin American Popular Culture History at the University of Kansas from 2004-2008. From there, he began teaching Spanish in a North City St. Louis K-8 school and pursuing a Masters Degree in Foreign Language instruction for the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He finished his thesis on the role video games play in 2nd language acquisition in 2010.

As an adult, he’s interested in a much more humanistic approach to integrating pedagogy and cutting-edge technology, providing connections for people to make things, making school more like real life, and eating a lot. He is the co-founder and project lead of the St. Louis makerspace The Disruption Department, and you can find him on Twitter @mrsenorhill and on his personal blog at Medium.

22 thoughts on “Magical vs. Hackable

  1. andytanguay says:

    While I’ll agree with the relative power and hackability of desktops, and to a lesser extent, laptops – but I take issue with the idea that tablets are pure consuming devices and are devoid of creative use. I’ve heard this argument since the introduction of the iPad.

    Personally, I do my most creative ‘for me’ work exclusively on my iPad. I work with computers all day, and the last thing I want to do is dig into a program to create artwork. So I sit back on the couch, relax, and draw and paint and doodle exactly what I want. There are many fantastic and mature apps on the iPad to let one do that, and the lack of ‘stakes’ that that exercise involves allows me to make some wonderful stuff.
    As opposed to being a pure ‘consumption device’, the iPad has been a revelation. I would also argue that MANY people’s laptops and desktops are pure consumption devices.

    I also know several musicians who create all kinds of cool electronic (and non-electronic) music using the music creation apps on the iPad. Just like art apps, the issue isn’t finding a good app, it’s figuring out which great choice you like the best.

    In the end, you get the right tool.
    Yes, tablets are ill suited to *certain types* of creative work.
    Yes, you can’t really learn Ruby on Rails on an iPad, and if the goal is to ‘create’ hacks, then yes, the iPad isn’t going to help you there. But dismissing the iPad as a pure consuming device is just not looking at it deep enough…not being creative in ways to use it.

    1. NaYthan says:

      Making music with an iPad, seriously? No mobile device has enough processing power or memory to compose anything meaningful -certainly not in real time-.
      Arguably an iPad could make a nice MIDI controller -connected to synths (most likely some music studio software running on a real Computer) –

      I’ve watched musicians compose electronic music, selecting a handful of samples from sample libraries with hundreds of gigabytes, mixing tracks that would bring a mid range PC to its knees.

      So I’m fairly sure that the creation of music on an iPad is more of a recreational thing than serious composing of music.

      So the topic of this article wasn’t if the iPad could be creatively used, but rather if it can be a multi purpose tool like the computer (especially in light of the development of the next generation of hackers). And in response to that I’d say that the iPad -or any other modern day (remember, Apple didn’t invent tablets, they just made them mainstream >there have been real PC’s in tablet form ages ago<) tablet- is a mirror for the masses of computing technology. It's not that a tablet is bound by some laws of nature not to be able to be hacked, used for programming or other development work. Sure, their processing power is rather limited, especially compared to a modern day PC, but computers started smaller than that. So it's the lack of software that makes those devices unusable for development work in terms of electronic hardware and software.
      And why would software developers -who potentially want to make money- develop something that the masses equipped with a tablet don't want or need?

      So in the end a tablet can be a nice addition to your toolbox -if you already know what you're doing- but it's a horrible device to inspire and teach the next generation of hackers or scientists -which is something we have to blame the computer illiterate masses for-.

  2. bbum says:

    When I work in my garage on projects from woodworking to welding to electronics to planting for the garden, my iPad sits in a gooseneck holder and is both a source of non-stop music and, more importanly, an always present, easily accessible, reference device while taking up zero square inches of whatever work surface I’m using.

    When I’m cooking, my iPad goes into a 2 gallon zip loc bag and not only displays the recipe I’m focused on, but I can very rapidly look up substitutions, trouble-shooting tips, and compare/contrast recipes. All while, of course, listening to more non-stop music.

    Sure, I could do the same with my laptop, but it is less portable and always in the way. I do research on my iPad while in bed, relaxing in a chair with a margarita, or “otherwise indisposed”. Heck, just yesterday I spent a chunk of a 3.5 hour flight reiewing welding techniques and comparing various birdhouse plans with my son because he mentioned he’d like to build more birdhouses for the yard.

    Through the iPad, I have consumed far more information at a far higher volume about the various non-computing — i.e. real life, the big room, the place with the burning orb on a blue canvas — hobbies and interests I have through a computer’s screen.

    I fully agree that an iPad is no replacement for any kind of programming-esque creative work that one might want to pursue. Nor is a tablet necessarily a replacement for any of a number of other creative tasks one normally does through a computer.

    But many of us spend a whole lot of our time creating via means that does not involve a kyeboard, command line, or mouse. For those purposes, a tablet is a fantastic addition to our toolbox!

  3. miroslava von schlockbaum says:

    So what we might really like is a tablet (aka: touchscreen with CPU/guts in it) with enough ports, and enough openly described access to those ports, so that it would be useful as a means to computationally contact anything workbench or internet? (of course, it’s mostly that “openly described access” issue that tends to send us all running to linux and laptops)

    1. Alan S. Blue says:

      I’m actually to the point of desiring a “real computer” that was designed intentionally as an -accessory- to the tablet – with the accompanying tablet-apps. A wireless ‘docklike’ thing.

      The tablets aren’t every going to have enough memory (of any sort) for “all of my ‘stuff'”. Mostly because the bitcount of my stuff grows even faster than Moore’s law. No CD/DVD/Blueray burners. No tape drives. The TV tuner needs access to the antenna. The miscellaneous non-wireless cruft needs a home.

      Going this route, the tablet itself doesn’t “need” anything. It’s the Raspberry Pi on the counter that’s actually the hackable piece wired into the SmartHouse. (Or whatever.)

      It’s already turned into the Swiss Army Tool to the point of making many older science fiction shows look horribly bad.

  4. Gregory Hill (@mrsenorhill) says:

    I agree with all of you. I have an ipad, which I use constantly for specific things. I’m, as an adult tinkerer, able to pull from a toolbox of devices and tools that allow me to do specific things when necessary.

    But I’m talking about people who aren’t yet makers, and don’t have the ability to pull from a range of tools. When you have the ability to buy, or have someone buy for you, one device, you don’t have the luxury of your niche use cases. Instead, the mainstream is after a “one-size-fits-all” option, and the more restricted the device is, the more of a loss it is for kids who need to be able to get inside something to learn how it works.

    I’ve watched kids use these things for 3 years now, and I’ve seen schools move to purchase them, without really knowing why.

    It’s not just a “consumption/creation” dichotomy, it’s a general shift for the mainstream to be distanced from the tools they use. And since most of us come from the mainstream and happen into working with our hands, that’s a long-range problem that we need to be aware of.

  5. mace says:

    I agree with this, and am waiting for #Ubuntu to become available on tablets before jumping from my netbook to a tablet. It’s been quite a wait, and my smartphone satisfies my needs for a touchable minicomputer, but i could never live a meaningful life without a *nix -derivate…. a Real Computer.

  6. chuck says:

    The tablet is a great creative tool the same way the internet is a great research tool. You can use the net to learn anything and connect to the world in a real and meaningful way… but most folks use it to gossip and download porn.
    As a musician I’m amazed by the possibilities of a large video enabled Kaos pad to manipulate music on the fly, especially something that could switch between a virtual mixer, instrument interface, recording control, and other ‘devices’ on the same surface.
    PS- your ipad is the worst way to take concert pictures ever! Stop doing it and blocking the view of everyone behind you, you sad Apple fanboys. You know who you are.

    1. Christian Restifo says:


      At my son’s band concert, a parent in front of me kept raising her iPad up to take videos and photos, thus blocking half my view….unless you consider looking at the screen on her iPad to be a full view.

      The next time someone does this to me, I’m going to put my smartphone between the person and the iPad and take a picture. When he/she takes offense, I’ll apologize for being so rude as to block his/her view with my electronic device…and see if the person gets it.

  7. misterhay says:

    I wouldn’t recommend a Chromebook (or an iPad) as your only device, but you can certainly learn to code and develop web apps on a Chromebook at

  8. Alan Dove says:

    There isn’t really a choice here. The current thinking in education is that tech is more or less useless in schools until you get to a 1:1 ratio of kids to machines. So if we’re a cash-strapped, understaffed school district, how do we get a computing device into every student’s hands? More importantly, how do we maintain those devices? Tablets are significantly cheaper than laptops, and their support overhead is negligible compared to the dedicated IT staff required to keep a fleet of Windows machines working properly.

    It’s wonderful that technically inclined adults with adequate disposable income are delving into programming with full-fledged desktop operating systems, but that just isn’t a workable option for schools. Tablets for ‘net-based activities, plus really bare-bones hackable devices such as Arduinos and Raspberri Pis for real programming, is.

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