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Soft and Malleable

May 29th , 2016

Yesterday I helped out an Internet of Things (IoT) event for pretty much anyone who wanted come along and learn/tinker/hack/build/break. If you’re new to the technology one of the things that might strike you is the cheapness, availability and increasing simplicity of much of it.

We live in a world where pretty much anything is possible. I don’t mean this in just the context of IoT, but rather in the context of everything. Between the internet, cheap electronics, developments in digital fabrication, even alternative models of democracy and ownership brought about through connectedness, we can—with the interest and will to do it—make almost anything.

And yet we don’t. There are, I’m sure, all sorts of reasons for this—from a lack of interest to fear—but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something more fundamental in all of us; in the model we have in our heads that describes the world.

From an early age we learn that the world is hard and people are soft. We even have a phrase, “soft skills”, to describe those skills that are about people. We “mould” people through education, while at the same time we teach them indisputable facts about the world. Hard facts.

So people are designed, squeezed around the hard edges of the world. And all too often those people break or they stretch too far or get flattened by the hard edges when the hard edges aren’t real: they’re just perceived. And many times those hard edges are shored up by other people.

Sometimes there might be a little wiggle room: the opportunity to mould things. Within reason, like choosing the colour of something or changing our avatars. But controlled freedom can be worse than no freedom. It’s padding, a buffer between us and the things that are softer than we imagine.

In reality, the softness of the world—its malleability—is not the people in it, or even just the tiny interfaces between those people and the Hard Things. The softness and malleability of the world is everything but the people. And a failure to realise this is part of who we are from an early age; it’s almost inconceivable, even if we get shown again and again. Even if deep down we really know.

So I know that one event, one small opportunity to see what we can make, isn’t anywhere near enough to fully alter this fundamental perspective, but people are picking at it everywhere. And if we keep at it—if we keep bringing people together with each other and the means to mould what’s really, genuinely soft—then the balance will shift.

In the process—in embracing the malleability—the reversed perspective will help us find the hard edges of people again. Realising together that the world is ours to shape inevitably brings about a deeper respect for our own abilities to shape it.