All Those Who Waltz

by Rachel B. September 19, 2017

"Pay no attention to that huge computer behind the curtain." — Dan O'Sullivan and Tom Igoe, Physical Computing

I find myself somewhere in the middle of our physical computing reading, having only recently learned how to build a simple circuit that makes a light turn on, when my brain begins to wander into abstractions of the quote above, which I pulled from O'Sullivan and Igoe's introduction to the physical computing practice. "Hey! Pay some attention to that woman behind the diodes, transistors, breadboards, resistors..." We're centered on her aren't we? On the human, the user, the inputs we humans can create and express beyond tapping, clicking, seeing, and hearing what comes out of our beloved, or at least ubiquitous, lap-top multi-media processing monsters.

And yet, for all the human-centered study I find myself engaged in, I also find myself gently reeling, attempting to find my sea legs, with the feeling of learning a new language and scratching my head for the words of my native tongue. Raspberry pi doesn't mean a delectable-sounding dessert, it means tiny microcontroller, smaller than an index card. Computer doesn't only mean what I'm typing on right now, it also means the aforementioned raspberry pi, among other things, some as small as a quarter. When you learn a new language, suddenly the old world takes on new meaning, and with that the speaker gains a kind of novel power for interpretation, analysis, and composition. 

I came to this program wanting to speak new languages; expanding on those of the physical computing world was a challenge I anticipated, a metaphorical country into which I expected to be dropped with nineteen other people and a guidebook. However, alongside this thrilling inundation, I also find myself swimming amongst deeper levels of knowledge in languages I thought I already spoke; here we listen more deeply, look more closely, tell stories more carefully, (attempt) to ask questions with the precision and flow of a waltz.

And when I feel that flow start to find a home in my bones, I see myself and my classmates as novice translators, learning to make connections between users and products, tools and context, experiences and meaning. It can be that complex and philosophical, or, this week, for me, it's as comparatively straight-forward as the connection between the common nine-volt battery and a LED light. Then again, I'm also on page 40 of a book on interviewing users, how and when to listen, when to speak, how to weave in and out of conversation with purpose — this is the waltz. Some of us came here with the dancing skills of a dad doing the "sprinkler" at their daughter's party, others with a basic understanding of the sway of steps to music, but we are all learning to dip, float, follow, and lead one another along the vast, smooth ballroom floor, now.

One of those other magical aspects of learning to dance is that suddenly you are open to a community which was previously closed off, and anyone, anywhere who knows the waltz, you can now dance with them. You're not only connected to all those who can dance those steps, but you're connected, in a sense, to all those throughout history who waltzed. I felt a similar sense of continuity sitting in class last week, holding the components of our first tiny circuit together, making a LED light-up by closing a circuit between my finger-tips. Suddenly I can appreciate further the art and thought process, the curiosity, in the form that my engineer grandfather saw it, the way my semi-conductor industry entrepreneur father sees it as well as his electrical engineer colleague. Of course, I've really only just learned to say the equivalent of "hello, world," but those greeting words are still the first step to new ways of understanding, and knowing the rush of just a few words, I can see in my classmates' eyes we can all appreciate and look forward to the thrill of joining the fluent in conversation.

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