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A blog for electronics professionals, amateurs, hackers, and anyone interested in the world of electronics.

10 October 2010

The Art of Electronics or the Electronics of Art?

As mentioned in my previous blogs, I have given quite a bit of time to thinking about the Arduino, and specifically as to why it has become so popular. It clearly isn't because it is open source, there are many simple development boards out there which are just as cheap and just as capable. In fact, pretty much every micro has a manufacturers reference design which is available for free use. The Arduino isn't even a particularly good design, with a notable bug in the 'shield' I/O connectors.

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC broadcast two separate programmes which gave me a different insight to why the Arduino (or rather Arduinos) have become so successful. The first programme was one in the "Something Understood" series on a Sunday morning. It is usually a rather - how can I put this politely - "thoughtful" programme about spiritual and ethical issues. The programme I heard, however, was about engineers and the public's attitude to them, why they are undervalued, underpaid, and undesirable. Unfortunately, the usually excellent and thoughtful Mark Tully revealed that he didn't actually understant what an engineer was either. Everything was approached from an "arts" perspective. All soft touchyfeely and "yes but what does it all meeeeeaaan".

The second programme was the strangely named "Outriders" segment on the Sept 28th 2010 edition of BBC Radio 5's excellent "Up All Night" programme. It used to be called "Pods and Blogs" but I guess they found that too restricting. One of the items concerned an art exhibition in a London gallery, where some innovative (and presumably Arts Council funded) artist has connected a load of solenoids up to an old typewriter, and is getting an Arduino to type out pre-programmed text.

Now, this is the sort of thing I played around with when I was 12, and I was certainly no precocious artistic savant, just an average lad into electronics and mechanical things, but the amount of time they gave to this item, and this fawning and gushing over what is a very basic idea, made me think. If this had been presented by an engineer, it would have been "yes thats nice dear" and nobody would have been interested. But because it was an "artist" who called his creation a "Haunted Typewriter" who was making a big song and dance about it, even the BBC took notice.

It struck me that this was exactly the market that Arduino is selling to. Make magazine gave it a huge sales boost when they decided to feature it, and their whole ethos is the "soft" approach of making things rather than the "hard" technical approach. The US (which is Make's home market) is still much more hands-on than Britain today. From what I can tell, "crafting" in the UK now consists of cutting out printed paper, and peeling off stickers whereas, in the USA, the rural nature of the vast majority of the population means that people still know how to sew, saw wood, make candles, bolt metal together and hit things with a hammer (inherently though, their disposable income is low). True crafting is something that is not just going out of favour here, but in danger of totally dying out. However! If you sell something as relating to Art (with a capital A) then that is fine. Art is perceived as not something you do with your hands (and thus dirty, degrading and not befitting an office worker in a polyester suit) but something you do with your mind and thus "okay". This somehow makes a nerdy, geeky, boring dev board into an exciting Art powerhouse of possibilities. Hey presto - you suddenly got back a huge section of potential market.

So, all you engineers, designers, techies, marketers and enthusiasts out there, when you are designing your next product, consider how you may make it attractive to the Art people. These seem to be the people with the money now. Don't worry if your product doesn't actually do anything, that just seems to make it more attractive to Art collectors!


  1. Interesting blog. As an electronic engineering student I am constantly faced with comments like "that's a good profession to go into, people always need their TV's fixed" or "so once you finish your degree you can come and fix my computer" How little these people understand electronic engineering and how much their lives would be effected if all the technology that has been produced by electronic engineers was taken away.
    My biggest annoyance is that in other countries engineer is a protected title like calling yourself doctor but here in the UK every Tom, Dick or Harry is an engineer of some description, it's no wonder that people think I'll be fixing TV's the rest of my life!

    I tried listening to the mentioned Something Understood but it is no longer available on iPlayer, do you know of any alternative sources?

  2. Unfortunately I don't know of another source. The BBC make a huge song and dance about digital technology, archives and so on, and then pull programmes that are only a few days old. Ridiculous really.

    I fear that here in the UK successive governments have/are wilfully storing up a huge amount of financial trouble by having no innovators and developers, just admin jobs which eventually get lost to India / China / other country of choice.