The Triumph of Tinkering (Turkle)

Chapter 2: The Triumph of Tinkering by Sherry Turkle

Turkle discusses the marginalization-to-rightful-ascension of “bricolage”– a “soft” style of working and understanding the world that involves processes akin to sculpting and montaging. She connects this to the advent of powerful personal computers, which allowed for manipulation of digital objects as opposed to code, thus lowering the technical bar to participation (and allowing more “bricoleurs” in). Turkle also discusses the different reactions (resignation vs. denial) to today’s “seductive” on-screen simulations, and calls for a third response — one that uses simulations as a means of consciousness-raising.

Turkle uses the example of computer programming to introduce the minority “tinkering” approach– a “soft style” that is “bottom-up” rather than “top-down,” and resembling “bricolage,” a word used by Claude Levi-Strauss used to “contrast the analytic methodology of Western science with an associative science of the concrete practiced in many non-Western societies” (p. 51). (Think tribal herbalists, designers).

“Bricoleurs approach problem-solving by entering into a relationship with their work materials that has more the flavor of a conversation than a monologue.”

In the era of mainstream computers, this style of programming was largely condemned in professional circles and environments where programming was taught. However, that all changed “as the computer culture’s center of gravity has shifted from programming to dealing with screen simulations. In the 1970s and 1980s, computing served as an initiation into the formal values of hard mastery. Now, playing with simulations encourages people to develop the skills of the more informal soft mastery because it is so easy to run “What if?” scenarios and tinker with the outcome” (p. 52).”Using the term ‘soft mastery’ goes along with seeing negotiation, relationship, and attachment as cognitive virtues. And this is precisely what the culture of simulation encourages us to do” (p. 56).
“Computational objects–whether lines of code or icons on a screen–are like abstract and mathematical objects, defined by the most formal of rules. But at the same time, they are like physical objects–like dabs of paint or cardboard cutouts…Computational objects have always offered an almost-physical access to the world of formal systems. There have always been people whose way of interacting with them had more in common with the style of the painter than with that of the logician” (p. 52).

**There is a great section in this chapter where Turkle points out our subjective bias towards formal, abstract thinking:

Piaget was able to observe that “Concrete mapping and manipulation of objects enable children to develop the concept of number, a concept that only gradually becomes a formal sense of quantity. The construction of number, in other words, is born of bricolage” (p. 55).

However, Piaget also felt that this “concrete” stage of thinking was part of a trajectory that culminated in a formal stage when “propositional logic liberates intelligence from the need to think with things. So Piaget both discovered the power of the concrete in the consruction of the fundamental categories of number, space time, and causality, and denigrated what he had found by relegating concrete ways of knowing to an early childhood stage of development” (p. 55).

“Piaget’s discoveries about the processes of children’s thinking challenged a kind of cultural amnesia” (p. 55).

“As Piaget had relegated the concrete to childhood, Levi-Strauss relegated it to the so-called “primitive” and to modern Western humanists” (p. 55).

“…We train girls in the component skills of a soft approach–negotiation, compromise, give and take–as psychological virtues, while dominant models of desirable male behavior stress decisiveness and the imposition of will. Boys and girls are encouraged to adopt different relational stances in the world of people. It is not surprising that these differences show up when men and women deal with the world of things” (p. 56)

Evidence that there exists only one correct, mature approach to problem solving that is abstract, formal, and rule-driven:

  • “Kitchen mathematics relies on the familiar feel and touch of everyday activities”
  • “…Bench science often depends on a long, messy process of trial and error followed by the final, frantic scramble to rationalize the results” (p. 58)
  • Feminist scholars elucidated the power of contextual reasoning

Ultimately, the author reminds us that “Soft mastery is not a stage, it is a style. Bricolage is a way to organize work. It is not a stage in a progression to a superior form” (p. 57).

***The rise of powerful personal computers and simulations afforded more experimentation and playing out of “what if?” scenarios…and thus represents an influence of technology. [“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” -Marshall McLullan]

“In the 1980s, personal computers provided a cultural medium in which ideas about noncanonical styles of science could blossom. Many more people could understand the kind of closeness to a scientific object that McClintock was talking about, because they saw themselves relating to icons or lines of computer code in that very way” (p. 59).

“Today’s high school students are more likely to think of computers as fluid simulation surfaces for writing and game playing than as rigid machines to program. Or they are likely to think of computers as gateways to communication” (p. 60).

“The new software design aesthetic effectively says that computer users shouldn’t have to work with syntax; they should be able to play with shape, form, color, and sound…Today’s software programs typically take the form of a simulation of some reality–playing chess or golf, analyzing a spreadsheet, writing, painting, or making an architectural drawing–and try to place the user within it” (p. 60).

“People look at a technology and see beyond it to a constellation of cultural associations. When they saw the early computer enthusiasts take the machine and make a world apart, many people felt they did not belong and did not want to belong. Now, the machine no longer has to be perceived as putting you in a world apart. Indeed, it can put you in the center of things and people–in the center of literature, politics, art, music, communication, and the stock market. The hacker is no longer necessarily or only a ‘nerd’; he or she can be a cultural icon. The hacker can be Bill Gates” (p. 61).

“In computer-assisted design environments, those who take most advantage of soft-approach skills are often taking most advantage of computing. In the culture of simulation, bricolage can provide a competitive edge” (p. 61).


  • Like to get to know a new environment by interacting with it.
  • With sim software, bricoleurs can create the feeling of closeness to the object by manipulating virtual objects on the screen.
  • Are comfortable with exploring the Internet through the WWW (making connections, bringing disparate element together)

“The seduction of simulation invites several possible responses. One can accept simulations on their own terms [simulation resignation]. Or one can reject simulations to whatever degree is possible [simulation denial]. But one can imagine a third response. This would take the cultural persuasiveness of simulation as a challenge to develop a more sophisticated social criticism… It would take as its goal the development of simulations that actually help players challenge the model’s built-in assumptions. This new criticism would try to use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising” (p. 71).

Will Wright’s comment re: SimCity: “Playing is the process of discovering how the model works” (p. 72).


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