Proposal Defense: Jerry Robinson on DIY and Hacker and Adaptive Tech

Zebreda makesitworkThe frontiers pushed by Syracuse University iSchoolers never fail to amaze. On May 8, a warm day (finally!) on campus, PhD candidate Jerry Robinson presented his research on Do-it-Yourself (DIY) efforts of people with disabilities. While his research focuses on DIY and “hacking” technology to avoid accessibility challenges, the defense also brought up issues of CHI, the “agency” of objects, and user-centered design. Below are my notes, thoughts, and questions in response to Jerry’s stellar proposal defense.

Individuals with disabilities have to “overcome constraints” as much as the next person. More so, arguably. Their experiences with impairment (i.e., limited mobility and limitations of physical dexterity) are addressed with creative, innovative, and DIY/hacker-like solutions. See the video of the innovative Zebreda here. But hackers come in many types. Some of these types may be a semantic matter, but broadly defined, hackers are those who approach problems by using tools in a way not originally intended by the product designer. For example, one might use the component parts of an iphone and a microwave to heat their home and let the dog out. A far-fetched example, perhaps, but we can imagine this is possible, given that people have completed re-purposing projects in this way before. Another creative problem-solving is DIY. The do-it-yourself emphasizes a reach back to roots where one constructs, creates, etc. something you could buy commercially from his/her own materials. It is unclear whether this could be via materials provided by a commercial organization explicitly for the DIY experience. The distinction and similarities between these approaches is important not to neglect. There is an emphasis on the “journey” part of “it’s the is journey as well as the destination” aspect of DIY, hacking, customization, and modification. There’s the accomplishing a goal piece, and the value of self-definition, agency, producing cultural artifacts.


1. Michael Nilan talked about the observer…. The “real estate in the metaverse” and “on high” experts.
2. What should the unit of analysis be? Argument: a. individual. Advantages: Can look at entanglements. Cannot piece apart entanglements if looking at (social) practices as the unit of analysis.

3. My question: if there are types of hackers (and I think from the first paragraph we can agree there are, beyond just semantic distinctions. It’s a matter of the ratio (emphasizing and balancing) of journey to destination. When discovering why someone (IwD or not) behaves in a DIY or hacker way, what motivations, beliefs, intentions etc. constitutes the emergent moment? When I decide to rig up my own fishing lure before I go to Home Depot to buy a rod and reel. The value is in the subversion; in a way, the formality of hackathons undermines those who are the type of hackers. Participatory design.

4. “Tools have agency.” Explain this statement further and explain to what extent and the implications of the agency of tools. A computer mouse does not have intentionality, of course, but we still say that it “demands certain things of me.” One implication that Jerry mentioned of the controlling aspects of tech and other tools is that our body and mind is constrained by the tools we used, our freedom to act directed, controlled in various ways…and also augmented by tech/tools/environment.

5. Will your dissertation focus at all beyond (physical) objects to “mental” hacks, new ways of thinking? It is a hack (and kind of a DIY, except a “think it yourself,” giving credibility to your own ideas. TIY, If you will.) For example, some people can visualize various things to help with clearer speech, or with a stutter to speak in rhythm with a mental shift.