Tag Archives: hacker madness

tinker (and race)

Some kid in Texas got arrested because he built a clock and brought it into school. My side of Twitter is quite upset about this, and tweeting rather furiously.

One of his teachers saw the clock and determined it was a bomb. Authorities were called. Fourteen year olds were arrested. Journalists moved. PR campaigns were started. There are two reasons as to why my people are talking about this. I will get to them in a moment. First, I need to concede that a home made digital clock looks like a bomb–a “movie bomb,” but most people don’t know what bombs look like. I mean, I don’t, though I once played a game of catch with a block of C4.

However, people are taught to fear each other. Teachers are taught to fear students. This is not just through explicit trainings, but through movies and television as well. (My favorite example of this is highlighted in Mary Roach’s book Stiff when she interviews Duncan MacPherson, a ballistics expert, who maintains that people fall down when they are shot because movies tell us that’s what people do.) People think wires and clocks and timers equal bombs because in movies they do.

Now, on to reasons:

The Right to TinkerA screen shot of a headline from "Business Insider" reading "A 14-year old Texas student was arrested at school for building a clock"

Here is the story from the perspective of the tinkerer, the hacker, the person who just likes how things work: The kid built a digital clock and brought it in to school. He was showing off to his teachers. (Hubris might be his greatest crime–but I don’t know if they got to the Odyssey yet in his English class.) Someone thought it looked more like a bomb than a clock and, as teachers are taught to fear students, a morning of craziness ensues.

This is an affront of our right to tinker–our right to hack. These are terms of art communities have taken to using to encompass a particular mindset behind fiddling and building. It is our right to take things apart and put them back together in the same or new ways, or not at all. Every physical object around you comes from someone putting it together. In order to create new things, you need to learn how old ones work.

Most pro-tinkering arguments fit into the following genres:

  • “I tinkered as a kid”
  • “Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Z.”
  • We wouldn’t have things if people didn’t build them

Maybe this kid will become a banker or teacher or statistician for the Boston Red Sox, but regardless of whether they develop into another engineer, technological innovator, or inventor–or something that has nothing to do with any of the above–they need to be able to explore intellectually. Intellectual curiosity is one of the most amazing things a person can have.

Maybe we should work on teaching people the difference between intellectual curiosity and malicious intent. Or at least what real threats look like.

Movies fail to teach us much about actual threats. In them, black people perpetrate shootings, Asians kick your butt, brown people bomb things, and white people save the day. Denzel Washington and Idris Elba are also allowed to save the day, but they will likely have a gun in their hand while doing so.

The Right to Be Brown

A screenshot of a headline from TPM reading "Police in Texas Arrest Muslim Teen Who Brought a Homemade Clock to School"I was torn between this screen shot and one reading “Cops Detain High School Freshman Ahmed Mohamed After Officials Mistake His Clock For A BOMB.” That little bar in the top of the screen reads “Muslim Kid’s Clock Mistaken for a bomb.” I chose this one because above the fold we see a picture of Ahmed Mohamed, the kid spoken of thus far.

For some perspectives, this story is very much about race.

Irving, Texas has had problems with Islamophobia in the past. The Mayor took a stand against sharia, stating that the imams mediating disputes of sharia bypasses the American legal system. So, there’s some background for how Irving approaches race.

Just the way the story is covered in many places–emphasizing that this person is named Ahmed Mohamed, that his parents are immigrants, that he’s Muslim. The people on my side of Twitter are upset because a fourteen year old was arrested because he is brown. My people are upset because one of us had do deal with so much awful because he’s not white. I feel a lot less need to explain why this is a problem. You already know racism is a problem. You already know racial profiling is an issue. You agree that it is not just unfortunate, but a travesty that someone as hardworking, and young, as Ahmed Mohamed was arrested and shamed so publicly, to be denied the presence of his parents, to be interrogated and dehumanized in front of his peers, because he is brown and did something cool.