On creativity and cannibalism and culture and DRM

When I was a kid growing up in Calcutta, many things amazed me. [Actually, in this respect, not much has changed. I continue to be amazed by what I see. I guess I must be easy to amaze…]. One of the things that amazed me as a child was the way Indian mechanics kept things working. Wherever I looked, I could see antiquated and decrepit machinery.

Cars, lifts, pumps, cranes, a pantheon of gods mechanical, grunting and squealing their way to the next day. Antiquated, yes. Decrepit, yes. Yet working.

When I talked to the mechanics, their language took some understanding: the air was black with terms like radiowater and jugger-bugger and ishpark plahg; I got to radiator and spark plug easily enough, but to move from jugger-bugger to shock absorber took a little time….

Where was I? Oh yes, creativity and cannibalism. Let me not drift off point.

You see, what made these Indian mechanics of my youth special, gifted, talented, was their ability to contrive pragmatic solutions to real problems. They would find a way of getting the machines to work. Partly because they had to, partly because they could. And partly because they really enjoyed the effort, they got a thrill out of making the gubbins work.

To do this they cannibalised. Borrowed parts from other machines. Fashioned parts out of things destined for other purposes, things that now had new destinies.

When they did this cannibalising, everyone applauded. They had no manuals, no local showrooms and distributors and agents and what-have-you. Just themselves and the dead machines. And they brought these machines back to life; quite often, the machines would outlast the cannibal mechanics.

Now the odd thing about all this is the word “cannibalising”. Where I grew up there was nothing derogatory attached to the term, in fact the opposite was true. Someone who excelled at such cannibalising was looked up to.

Hold that mindset and perspective. When you are able to fix something yourself, without reference to manuals and without having access to lock-in intermediaries, this is a good thing. When no one comes in your way during your attempts to do such things yourself, this is a good thing. When you can substitute parts freely, fashion parts out of almost-random raw material, this is a good thing.

This is what Bob Frankston has always reminded me of, reminded me again lest I forget. Thank you Bob. This is what Doc Searls has always reminded me of, every time the conversation drifts to D-I-Y IT. This is what Gordon Cook’s mail-list conversations drive towards.

The kernel for this post was this post on Appropriation of Mobile Media in South America by Howard Rheingold. There’s this wonderful quote:

The appropriation process fundamentally is a negotiation about power and control over the configuration of the technology, its uses, and the distribution of its benefits

Any technology obtains value through adoption and usage, “appropriation” in the context above. Appropriation is a process, a negotiation of power. For decades, perhaps centuries, the balance of power has been with the provider of technology rather than its consumer. What we are seeing now is a shift in that power, something that has been happening over decades, something that is crescendo-level now.

Let the seller beware.

4 thoughts on “On creativity and cannibalism and culture and DRM”

  1. Your wonderful childhood experiences aren’t unique to India as you will find folks making Frankenstein like cars in Trinidad as well…

  2. Have a look at the Bush Mechanics in Australia too! :-)

    Getting back to DIY IT… CSC’s Leading Edge Forum has a new Web 2.0 report that highlights experiments by BP to let users DIY their IT – John Milan offers a bit of a write up:

    “Instead of IT edicts, employees were given the responsibility – including a budget – to build and configure their computing needs. Instead of issuing rules, BP began issuing a Computer Driver’s License. A BP employee was given an increased role in managing and protecting their desktop environment, from keeping anti-virus software current to being responsible for licensing practices. In turn, IT was able to reduce its overhead and turn on the internet full time instead of maintaining an intranet/internet duality.”

  3. I really enjoyed reading this – it seems the term hacker often draws the same negative sentiment as you describe cannibalisation. I guess you could say the two are often inexorably linked in the realm of software.

    The guys i’m work with on sdk.bt.com are very much in this space.

    Its good that people are starting to realise through many mediums, reuse (again a loaded term) and hacking has its place.

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