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High-Low Tech: Democratizing Engineering and Design

Leah Buechley (MIT Media Lab)
Materials, Objects
Location: Imperial Ballroom
Average rating: ***..
(3.50, 2 ratings)

People knit scarves, build furniture, sew clothing, and solder radios together in their homes and garages. Diverse groups of people-girls and boys, grandparents and college students-lovingly engage in these hands-on low-tech hobbies.
In contrast, companies produce high-tech things by high-tech processes, using groups of people and sophisticated machinery to build devices like cell phones, pharmaceutical drugs, and cars.

But this clear division between high-tech and low-tech is beginning to blur. A host of new tools is making many of the resources previously available only to companies accessible to individuals, empowering people to design, engineer, and build devices that integrate high and low technology.

The Internet has ushered in a new technological age by giving individuals unprecedented access to information and publishing and communication tools. It has democratized important facets of computer science, journalism, medicine, economics, and sociology. A fresh chapter in this history is opening; democratization is creeping off of the computer screen and into the 3D realm. Online communities devoted to hobbies from crafting to electronics tinkering-where people share designs and construction tips-are flourishing.

Meanwhile, high tech design and engineering tools are increasingly accessible to individuals: sophisticated manufacturing equipment-like 3d printers, knitting machines, and laser cutters-is shrinking in size and cost; electronic components like microcontrollers and sensors are becoming easier to find, purchase, and use; and developments in materials science are changing the landscape of materials that are available for design and engineering.

This talk envisions a near future in which individuals integrate all of these developments and employ craft, engineering, and web-honed communication skills to build and distribute information about “high-low tech” devices like temperature sensing scarves, algorithmically generated furniture, and radically customized cell phones.

The presentation will discuss burgeoning high-low tech communities, focusing on ways that professional designers and engineers can support and encourage this new creative movement. It will present examples of high-low tech artifacts-including embroidered circuits and paper computers-and examples of tools that empower others to construct high-low tech devices-including the LilyPad Arduino, a construction kit that enables novices to build fabric-based wearable computers.

Photo of Leah Buechley

Leah Buechley

MIT Media Lab

Leah Buechley is an Assistant Professor at the MIT Media Lab where she directs the High-Low Tech research group. The High-Low Tech group explores the integration of high and low technology from cultural, material, and practical perspectives, with the goal of engaging diverse groups of people in developing their own technologies. Leah is a well-known expert in the field of electronic textiles (e-textiles), and her work in this area includes developing a method for creating cloth printed circuit boards (fabric PCBs) and designing the commercially available LilyPad Arduino toolkit. Her research has been featured in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Popular Science, CRAFT Magazine, Journal of Architectural Design, Denver Post, and the Taipei Times. Buechley received PhD and MS degrees in computer science from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a BA in physics from Skidmore College.

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