Tag Archives: Sara Winge

Bosco and the memory of William Drenttel


A couple of days ago, I wrote about Bosco, the 8 year-old who knows all about meth labs and not a lot else.

I got precisely one response, a woman who said this was kind of problem she likes to solve.  And that was it.

I thought, “maybe if I develop the idea a little.”  My first idea was a kind of twinning project.  You know, the kind that cities have. ( New York is a sister city to Cairo.)

We would identify 6 kids across the US who would then become Bosco’s twins.  And we find away to capture what they are learning as they are learning it and we find some way to communicate this knowledge to Bosco.

Our objective is to make him cosmopolitan in the ways that they are cosmopolitan.  (And by “cosmopolitan,” I mean merely, “knowledgeable about the world outside one’s own.”)  My assumption: that there are many disadvantages to growing up in the home in which Bosco finds himself but one of the most debilitating  is a lack of knowledge/understanding/awareness.  (Call it “cultural capital.“) This lack of knowledge is, we could argue, more damaging than illiteracy or innumeracy.

Problem 1.  There is a “barrier to entry” problem here.  As meth cookers, there’s a good chance that Bosco’s parents have limited horizons (prima facie case, no?) and that they would not welcome the intrusion of a system that is designed to broaden the horizons of their son.

I don’t how to solve this problem.  I have a feeling that an anthropologist and an economist working together, with the levers of meaning and value, could come up with a solution, but more on this later.

Problem 2.  There is no question that this twinning process, if it worked, would transform Bosco and there’s not much doubt that it would estrange Bosco from his family.  This would make Bosco the captive of a hostile environment.  From the parental point of view, we have created a “little Lord Fountleroy,” someone who thinks himself (or is thought to think himself) better than his family.

I don’t know how to solve this problem either.  It’s worth pointing out that every immigrant and upwardly mobile family find themselves with kids who  are more cosmopolitan than their parents.  And these parents find a way to deal with it.

Mind you, these people have sought the condition they endure.  Our “meth” mom and dad accomplish that magical contradiction that allows them to refuse the idea that they are not cosmopolitan even as they resent those who are.

How do we reach them?  What do we say?  Could we construct a forgivable space, a status allowance, for Bosco in the home,  one that allows his parents to say, “Oh, don’t listen to him.  He’s our little Martian.  Always talking about the craziest stuff!”  (Yes, but of course, we could hope for something more than this but I think it’s wise ((and not particularly hostile)) to assume the worst.  We are not looking for perfection.  We just want an allowance.)

The trick is making it “our little Martian.”  We need to construct a status for Bosco in the home that gives him room to take on and give off cosmopolitan knowledge.  And this will depend on constructing a status that allows his parents to forgive, and perhaps even take credit for, their oddball son.

At this point, I need to address a tide of unhappiness that I know is rising in anthropological readers (and some others).  People will complain that I am “essentializing” Bosco’s parents and Bosco himself, that I am imputing characteristics in an act of class stereotyping and status diminishment, that this is an exercise of power.

Allow me to do an anthropology of the anthropologists (and engage in another act of classification).  Anthropologists are almost silent when it comes to the big problems of our day and that is because the field is largely preoccupied by acts of self criticism.   Hand to brow, with a show of their sensitivity, they ask, “Can we generalize?  What are the politics of generalizing?  What are the ethics of generalizing?” These are real questions.  But Anthropology is now effectively an amateur theatre company dedicated to a production of moral posturing and ethical declamation.

I am not saying these cautions do not matter.  They do.  But when they are the only thing you do, when they are the thing you do instead of helping a kid like Bosco, when they are the thing you do that prevents you from helping a kid like Bosco, I say this.  Bite me.  Get over yourself.  Snap out of it.  Start again.  Your trepidations matter less than Bosco’s future.  While you posture, pain and suffering flourish like the green bay tree.

Whew!  Sorry.  Anthropologists have to stop being too good for the world.   It’s the only way they can return to usefulness.

One way to address Problem 2 is to catalogue all the instances of families in which children are marked as different, where parents are called upon to explain and, we hope, make allowances.  Families with autistic kids, for instance, sometimes resort to calling them “little professors.”  There are other precedents.  What are they?  Are any of them usable here?  How would we adapt these?

Let’s say we solve Problems 1 and 2.  Let’s say we find a way to create a twinning system and relay information from Bosco’s twins to Bosco himself.  How would we do this?

This is where I thought of William Drenttel.  I gave a paper at Yale a couple of years ago and afterward he and I had a roaring, gliding conversation.  It was clear he was trying to recruit me for one of his grand schemes and to my discredit I failed to rise to the occasion.  (I was working on schemes of my own, which I now see were minor and ordinary by comparison.)

When I thought about how to get information, knowledge and understanding to Bosco, I thought of Bill.  He is one of those designers who strike me as the anti-anthropologist: citizens of several worlds, effortlessly mobile in passage between them.  Bill, I thought, would know how to think about this problem.  This is a design thinking problem because we are, in effect, being asked to design thinking.  

If we could find some way to represent the knowledge being accumulated by Bosco’s twins, this might help.   Let’s say Twin 1, the one in Philadelphia, is sitting with his family watching TV.  There’s a news story about LA and the family conversation that follows somehow puts LA on Twin 1’s “mattering map.”  (I have this term from Rebecca Goldstein).

The trick now is to make LA matter on Bosco’s mattering map.  The fact that we are talking about geographical knowledge helps a lot.  A map is itself a useful, perhaps the original, visualization.  But our job is to show how “LA” matters not just for its relative location (Bosco lives somewhere in the midwest) but also as the home to Hollywood,  dinosaur-rich tar pits, several sporting franchises, and a particular place in the American imaginary.  (We will have to fit that last one with new language.)  Our question: What does Bosco already know and how do we use this to help him grasp facts and fancies about LA.

Bill, I thought, will know how to take this problem on.  And today I discovered that William Drenttel passed away in December of last year.  (See this remarkable obituary by Julie Lasky.)  I think an honest, hard-earned  moment of self repudiation is called for here.  Why wasn’t I in touch with him?  Why didn’t I know about his illness or his passing?  Is there some good reason why I live like a small forest animal, posting out of a tree stump and otherwise out of touch with the world?  What is my excuse exactly?  And who am I kidding?  (Forgive a maudlin outburst.)

My thought originally was to make designers and anthropologists the intermediaries of the movement of knowledge between Bosco and his twins.  But in a more perfect world, and now with social media at our disposal, it might be possible to make Bosco and his twins a tiny community (Marshall Sahlins’s “mutuality of being“) that pools its knowledge and helps one another master it.  Can eight year-olds do this kind of thing?  I don’t know.  Maybe with some training.

Happy coincidence but this morning I saw a tweet by Sara Winge on the attempt by UNICEF to use Minecraft to show what a reconstructed Haiti might look like.


Could a band of eight year-olds build a model of their knowledge?  In Minecraft or some other medium?  Jerry Michalski has put some of his knowledge online.   Some 160,000 “thoughts” all  in categories and ready to hand.   Bosco and his friends might do the same with the right education and encouragement.

There is lots of work to do here.  Who’s interested?  If we get something up and running, I propose we call it the Drenttel project.  No, there are so many Drenttel projects running in the world, that would be wrong and clueless.  Let’s call it A Drenttel Project.


Thanks to Kevin Smith, William Drenttel and Architect’s Newspaper here for the image of Bill above.

Low Fidelity culture

A couple of days ago, Addy Dugdale observed a paradox:

One of the things that excites people most about technology is that it is seen as a gateway to the future. So how does that explain the recent glut of lo-fi adverts, software, and user interfaces that seem to be being spewed out by so-called hi-tech companies?

Addy offers into evidence a Rube Goldberg ad from Google Chrome.  Very low fi indeed.   It show tests begin performed on the speed of Chrome versus the speed of sound, lightening, and a potato being fired from a gun.  The lab looks like a mechanic’s garage in the 1950s. It is manifestly the world of an enthusiastic amateur pretty much flying by the seat of her pants.  It’s all very duct tape and “there, that should hold it.”  This is the kind of lab where you really only feel  comfortable in full body armor. 

Addy’s right.  The paradox is palpable.  On the one hand, we have digital perfection, a search engine that returns millions of results with great speed and precision.  On the other hand, we have a world of improv and accident where anything can happen and usually does. 

We have seen this paradox before.  Sara Winge pointed out a couple of years ago that many of her friends who work in the digital world spend some of their spare time works on projects by hand.  There is additional evidence everywhere, including magazines like Craft and now a book from Make editor Mark Frauenfelder called Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.

Addy gives us this useful glimpse of another cultural producer of this Lo-Fi effect for which I’m grateful.  (I hadn’t seen it before.)

The high priest of lo-tech sensibility is, without doubt, Michel Gondry, whose devotion to the handmade and hand-drawn knows no bounds–don’t forget, he directed a episode of Flight of the Conchords, starring the ultimate amateurs, Bret and Jermaine. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character Stephane in The Science of Sleep, whose set design was part Rube, part craftsy, says this: "I think people empathize with what I do, because it comes from here [my heart]." Gondry’s 2008 movie Be Kind Rewind explores the whole hand-made theme. A viral for the Tomorrow Awards, a competition that celebrates technological excellence in advertising is pure Gondry.

I think there are three drivers of this paradox. 

The first is a simple nostalgia.  That 50s laboratory was a nightmare of inefficiency.  Indeed, in the 1950s nothing worked especially well.   The mechanical world was shot through with imperfection and accident.  Thanks to several factors, now it works pretty well.  And because human beings are in our very souls contrary, ungrateful creatures, we now hanker after the world we have lost. 

The second is a wish for a kind of groundedness.  As the world got digitized, the grammar of everything was now beautiful organized and streaming 1s and 0s.  There almost no moving parts on my iPad.  It operates with silent precision.  So there is something kind of wonderful about tech with seams, levers, nice, big dials and moving parts. 

Digital products are silent and slightly accusatory.  They give nothing away about their internal operation, because frankly, they seem to say, you wouldn’t understand it anyhow.  Naturally, we love the Italian, nearly operatic, full disclosure of Lo-fidelity tech that discloses not just what it does but how it does it.  This is candor we can believe in.

Now that we can buy a video camera capable of very high fidelity, we like the imperfections of the Fisher-Price PXL2000, aka PixelVision, aka  KiddieCorder.  Actually, something in us requires the imperfections of the PixelVision.  (And that’s why it was one of the cult objects of the 1990s.)  Now that we can capture a perfect image, the PixelVision seems to promise a larger, poetic truth.  In a world of post mechanical perfection, we love the the actual, the manual and the mechanical.  It grounds us.  It lets us back in.  Most important, it flatters us.  (It appears to care what we think, and for this small concession we are deeply grateful.)

Third, and here we must reverse fields entirely, we love the Lo-Fi aesthetic because it is a pretty good symbol of what the world is now.  The new tech world may be  rational, exact, dependable, reproducible.  But the cultural effects are entirely opposite.  They profuse, individual, unpredictable and all a great big muddle.  Using the new technologies our culture is decentralized, distributed and busted out all over.  It proceeds with scant regard for editorial direction and elite control.  We are in the phrase created by Errol Morris, now Cheap, fast and out of control.  We have many players and an immense number of plays.  Indeed, Morris’ title seem to take on unintended significance precisely because it feel like it captured a world where everything was happening all at once. 

In this world it is as if we all occupy our own little laboratories.  We have the knowledge and the means of production that would only have to come to us if we has signed up as full time film makers, journalists, academics.  And now that we live outside these institutions, we are very largely flying by the seat of our pants.  I spend a good deal of time tapping the big dial of laboratory instruments, wondering if this reading, so interesting, is reliable.  I am, as we all are, Victorians authorized to produce new kinds of culture by the conviction that, “hey, if you us, who, if not now, when?” 

This aspect of the Lo-Fi aesthetic isn’t nostalgic or compensatory.  This aspect is tapped into what our culture is now. We have the feeling that at least metaphorically our future is going to look very like this past.  


Dugdale, Addy.  2010.  Lo-Fi Design is Conquering the World of Tech.  Fast Company.  June 10. here.

Frauenfelder, Mark.  2010.  Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.  New York: Portfolio. 

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Artisanal Trend and 10 Things that Define it.  This Blog.  November 6.  here.