Sometime last holiday season I passed through Union Square. There were Christmas trees being bought, sold and sawed and I bent down to pick up a scrap. Being that I stare at glowing rectangles most hours of the day, I wanted to feel its texture and smell its sap. It fit nicely in my pocket, too, so I took it along.
As I walked along 10th Avenue, I reached into my jacket pocket, by now full of dirt and sap, took out the wood and held it to my ear. “Hello?” I said. I kept talking into my piece of Christmas tree as passersby shot perplexed stares my way.
I’m Bobby Genalo, a graduate student at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. As part of my thesis, MakerBot has given me access to its resources and community for a project called Artphones, a platform for transforming anything into a working cell phone. The conversation I’m looking to have, however, has less to do with the realities of crafting one’s own phone, and more about something I’ve been calling the malleability of life.
I see life as an impermanent and iterative experience, where each project is birthed from the one before it. I want to celebrate risk, promote jaywalking instead of using the crosswalk*, and end each conversation with “and then?” What if a school were to take this approach? It’s my thinking that we might get students who not only are prepared for the future, but who see their world as a playground of opportunities right now.
Earlier this month, I got the chance to demo this dream with a 3rd grade class at The Packer Collegiate Institute here in Brooklyn. I had made arrangements with their teacher, Maureen Reilly (who also teaches LEGO Robotics), to discuss the Artphone with her 20 students and begin exploring their ideas for custom walkie-talkies (3rd graders are too young for cell phones).
I introduced the idea with a book that most in attendance were familiar with: “The Giving Tree.” I explained that I had photographed tree stumps around Brooklyn, the evidence of a large storm that passed through the Northeast last year. Having recently read the book with my niece, I was inspired to prove that, with a little technical know-how, a stump needn’t be the end of a tree’s life. I showed how I created a mesh of a stump using 123D Catch, cleaned it up in a 3D modeling program, and printed it out using MakerBot’s Replicator. Eyes were wide. The children took quickly to sketching their walkie-talkies and await my return for when they will sculpt their designs with clay (March 26).
Concurrently, I have begun asking certain adults (with existing carrier plans and SIM cards) to explore, tangibly, their ideal mobile phone. The hardware for these phones, as I’ve told my first users, will be screen-less and internet-less. It’s my hope that designing a cell phone without the constraint of a bulky screen will, formally, emphasize ergonomic factors, conceptually free them from a reliance on constant information and, mechanically, be far easier for users to dissect.
I’m working on the Artphone in the hopes of inspiring a transference of responsibility from the producer to the consumer. How can we spark a curiosity about the “hows” and “whys” of our everyday tools that motivates people to create? Can we shift the dialogue about cell phones so that, at the end of its life, it can be celebrated like a child’s drawing on the fridge or a diploma on the wall?
More of Bobby’s thoughts and work can be seen at www.genalodesigns.com/blog
*For reasons that aren’t obvious, it’s been demonstrated that jaywalking is in fact safer than crossing legally. Read more in the book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt.