Littlebits/Granular Synthesis, Make yr own technology! Or: innovate, don’t fixate.

From a post at “we make money not art”, I found this project called littleBits. The idea is a fairly simple one:

littleBits is a growing library of preassembled circuit boards, made easy by tiny magnets. All logic and circuitry is pre-engineered, so you can play with electronics without knowing electronics. Tiny magnets act as connectors and enforce polarity, so you can’t put things in the wrong way. And all the schematics will be shared under an opensource license so you can download, upload, suggest new bits and hopefully see them come to life.

Basically, the project means to democratize the creation of physical technology in much the same way that Cycling ’74 and IRCAM democratized the means of granular synthesis, or the synthesis of sound from the bottom up, the freeing of the most microscopic materials of sound sampling, allowing one to create their own electronic instruments. They did this first with MAX/MSP, and, in fact, even more so with PureData. (Thanks, Miller Puckette).

Tim Hecker discussed the need for granular synthesis in an electronic music issue of the now-defunct Parachute Magazine, and I think the argument he makes holds for physical, “black-boxed” technology as well as it does for electronic music. The essential idea is that the fetishization of technology or neo-naturalism are both backward ways of dealing with technological development. That is to say, we need to examine the technology insofar as it allows us to move beyond it, rather than allow ourselves to be seduced by a meditation on the state of a single technology, to fixate rather than innovate:

Perhaps a form of electronic music will come which will leave the technology it uses as only a trace — so that the aesthetic field opens up again to allow for spaces which are free from the suffocation of medium-based discourses; an electronic music which leaves its technology as just a murmur.

We do this precisely through, he suggests, granular synthesis rather than pre-programmed sound production software. The beauty computer-made music is, with relatively minimal expertise, how one gains an astounding control over the whole range of possible sounds. LittleBits seems to be making the same possible for those without a complex understanding of circuitry and mathematics (one of the problems holding the spread of granular synthesis is the grasp of mathematics it requires, though, anyone who passed trigonometry should find it well within the realm of possibility to learn).

LittleBits, if you read the interview, seems to require only that you match colors and conceive of simple circuits. It is certainly a first stage, but I think it is the first stage of something wonderful: freeing the basic materials of electronic technologies so that people can make them for themselves. Perhaps some day we will have LittleBits stores next to craft stores: it seems to be a potentially complex but basically simple  kit with a nearly infinite number of interesting and cool possibilities. The number of possible basic units is both staggering and encouraging. The idea presents people with the building blocks of their own electronic experimentation, no complex machinery, start-up capital or fancy engineering education required. Maybe some will get a taste for it and move on to more advanced experimentation.

Obviously, this system by itself will not replace consumer technologies with a DIY culture, but projects like this are an exciting step in the correct direction.

Which is all to say: make yr own technology!

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