MarkIT Design: Sketches

August 4, 2009Bobmarkit, projects0

Figuring out the mechanics of the machine requires sketching. Lots of it. Here is a small sampling:


MarkIT Theory: Market as Object

August 3, 2009Bobmarkit, projects0

or, in other words, the results of an intense, caffeine-fueled Socratic-method discussion with Matt one summer afternoon…


The Market as Object

One of the key presumptions underlying this proposed MarkIt project is the notion that financial markets, in their contemporary post-industrial instantiations, comprise a subject capable of being viewed, interpreted, critiqued and treated as a ‘thing’ that appears and behaves as if it bears a will and personality of its own. This objectification of The Market is a necessary condition if we are to meaningfully experiment with technologically imparting physical form to its movements and idiosyncrasies. To better understand the underpinnings of this somewhat unusual sort of objectification from a social theory perspective, Knorr Cetina (1997) provides a particularly comprehensive framework, building upon the following concepts: that the trend to individuation in society has led to ‘postsocial’ relations, and that the rise of a Knowledge Society creates a context within which sociality with objects is both facilitated and reinforced.

Historically, with their embrace of free-market capitalism, Western cultures have exalted the individual (acting in ‘rational self-interest’) over the collective good. Knorr Cetina (1997) extends this condition, arguing that the rise of contemporary science and technology has now supplanted capitalism as the primary force that undermines traditional, communal means of self-realization. In other words, faced with compounding arrays of high-technology devices, systems and ‘new media’, individuals are increasingly reliant upon internal resources to successfully attain knowledge, navigate social landscapes and construct self-identity:

… a shift of authority ‘from without to within’: individuals are thrown back on their own resources to construct a coherent life course, identity and forms of togetherness for themselves… (p. 4)
The demise of community and traditions also leaves the individual in the lurch – without the psychological means to deal with the great freedom of choice or the contingency of contemporary life as which this freedom rebounds (Bauman, 1996: 50f). This is where knowledge steps into the picture in yet another way – in the form of experts who inform choice, repair damage, etc. … (p. 4)
…today’s individuals engage with the wider environment and with themselves through information produced by specialists which they routinely interpret and act on in everyday life… (p. 7)

As noted above, a consequence of this retraction of traditional social structures and ‘atomizing’ of the individual is the turn to reliance on, and interaction with, “experts”. Knorr Cetina identifies this context as a Knowledge Society, in which ‘expert cultures’ predominate but are nevertheless ‘alien’ in a social sense:

The alien culture relevant here and implicated in all previous accounts of individuation is that of knowledge and expertise. There is a widespread consensus today that contemporary Western societies are in one sense or another ruled by knowledge and expertise. The proliferation of concepts such as that of a ‘technological society’ (e.g. Beniger, 1986), a ‘knowledge society’ (Bell, 1973; Drucker, 1993; Stehr, 1994), a ‘risk society’ or ‘experimental society’ (Beck, 1992) embody this understanding. (p. 7)

In a Knowledge Society, individuals interact with expert cultures in a type of engagement that Knorr Cetina characterizes as a ‘postsocial’. In postsocial relationships, sociality is not exclusive to human-to-human interaction, but is extended to encompass interaction between humans and certain types of non-human ‘things’ or ‘objects’, which for this discussion are the knowledge structures of experts. Within this framework, the Market may be viewed as one such instantiation of expert knowledge. The Market is shrouded unto a distinct financial ‘realm’ or ‘expert community’ (that of brokers, bankers, analysts, etc.) who hold, exchange and control specialized knowledge. Financial Market information is thus something ‘out there’, inaccessible to the layperson within that system per se. The Market is rendered accessible largely through information technology:

When person-to-person services are replaced by automated electronic services, no social structures at all need to be in place – only electronic information structures (see Lash and Urry, 1994). The main arena and site of some global transactions such as stock or forex market trading appears to be the electronically-mediated computer- or telephone- conversation. In these cases, the massive social resources of multinationally operating corporations are replaced by conversational and interactional microstructures which now bear the burden of the transaction. (p. 6)

It is fitting, then, that the The MarkIt project is an experiment in physical computing, the products of which may be regarded as part of this world of “electronically-mediated” “conversational and interactional microstructures”. However, such a conception is overly simplistic and needs clarification. In Knorr Cetina’s framework, postsocial relationships in a Knowledge Society are neither stagnant nor one-way. These attributes are crucial in conceptualizing the nature of the objects which engage in postsocial relations previously discussed.

In a postsocial knowledge society, mutually exclusive definitions of knowledge processes and social processes are theoretically no longer adequate; we need to trace the ways in which knowledge has become constitutive of social relations. …[K]nowledge cultures centrally turn around object worlds to which experts and scentists are oriented… (p.8)

Central here is idea that knowledge and society are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are reciprocally and simultaneously created around so-called “objects of knowledge” ( ). Knorr Cetina is specific about what constitutes objects of knowledge, drawing upon Rheinberger’s “epistemic things”. Epistemic things are typically “continually unready-to-hand, unavailable and problematic”; they are “question-generating”, situated “at the center of a research process and in the process of being materially defined” (p. 10). These ‘problematic’ qualities provide us an “orientation toward knowledge” (p. 10). Objects of knowledge should not be confused with instruments and Heidegger’s (1962) equipment, which are unproblematic, static and complete. They are not sites of investigation; rather, they are simply tools that tend to disappear through their use and only become visible when they malfunction.

With Knorr Cetina’s framework as grounding, it is thus that the proposed MarkIt project may be seen as an exercise in making visible and explicit a postsocial engagement with “the Market as an object of knowledge.”

MarkIT Steppers: Stepping onward!

July 31, 2009Bobmarkit, projects0

With the Stepper Motor Driver circuit boards assembled, it was time to put them to the test. As a trial run, we ran through the instructions provided at It worked! At least, from the absence of sparks, smoke and/or open flame, we could be reasonably assured at this point that the soldering effort was successful and none of the required components were missing or had been installed backwards.

A great source of stepper motors are hacked scanners, which are essentially single-axis robots:

In this one, Matt gets fancy with some code that varies the audible tone of step frequencies to produce a ‘song’ (and, unfortunately, simultaneously reinforce stereotypes of nerdy hacker culture):

But now what? It would be theoretically possible to extend the code provided in the above test and write custom software to control the MarkIT machine, which would be fun, don’t get me wrong. However, again, such effort would duplicate extensive work already done by others. Therefore, it would be far wiser to take cues from the larger desktop CNC community and pursue the use of an historical standard to control axial movement: G-Code. Without delving into it too much (such a discussion could get lengthy), G-Code is a rather infamous vocabulary of instructions originally developed specifically for the computer “numeric” control of 2 and 3-dimensional milling machines in heavy manufacturing. Interestingly, it has been around since the 1960’s, far predating postmodern desktop computers by some time ( So, instead of writing custom Arduino code to achieve basic robotic movement, we decided instead to use an existing program designed to enable the Arduino to interpret and carry out G-Code commands, aptly named the ‘GCode Interpreter’ and found at: To be honest, it bothers me somewhat that G-Code is an antiquated ‘legacy’ system which has been modified over the years to the point of being overly cryptic and loosely held together. However, the value in learning the language truly lies in tapping into a wealth of available software intended to translate various forms of useful data into G-Code commands. Most commonly, this data takes the form of vector drawings and 3D CAD models.

One such program is ReplicatorG, available at Most useful for our purposes is that this software also bears the ability to translate keyboard input into G-Code, making testing of the steppers significantly easier. See it in action on the bright orange tables in the InterAccess space, Ossington Street, Toronto:

And finally, back at the Critical Making Lab on the hacked scanner:

Next up: some good old-fashioned DESIGN work! And, some theory…

MarkIT Steppers

July 21, 2009Bobmarkit, projects0

As mentioned at the end of my previous blog post, stepper motors are the key to countless possibilities in robotic movement, primarily because they can be controlled to a great degree of accuracy and, if ‘beefy’ enough, power. Harnessing such potential is an example of what is truly exciting about learning new technology: the potential to employ the technology in future projects – the classic ‘tree branch’ model of knowledge.

Also as previously mentioned, MarkIT takes primary resources from the RepRap project, which has done the bulk of difficult legwork in successfully interfacing stepper motors with the Arduino platform. Among the items that came in the kit, the most crucial were the Stepper Motor Driver circuit boards, as described here: . So, the task at hand was to assemble and solder these boards together according to the online instructions.

Ahh, soldering is relaxing… but only when it goes right! Granted, it would appear that there is little that is altogether ‘critical’ about making these circuit boards based on explicit, step-by-step instructions. However, during the time I spent putting them together, I had an opportunity to reflect on the theoretical ‘bigger picture’ of the project (more on this soon), and I also thought about one of Matt’s past Critical Making Workshops, FlwrPwr (, which in part investigated attitudes hesitant toward online educational resources. It struck me that what I was doing, assembling artifacts of physical computing based on the work of a worldwide community of like-minded people, would be absolutely unthinkable without the Internet. Not only does it provide the fluidity necessary for the knowledge to be exchanged, the technology associated with this epoch is what has enabled the explosion in D.I.Y. microcontroller-based tinkering in the first place. Online educational resources? A given.

MarkIT Motors: Gateway to the World of Robotics

July 6, 2009Bobmarkit, projects0

I must apologize for being so negligent in recording, documenting and sharing the making process of this project in a timely manner.  In some ways, I’ve come to see that keeping an up-to-date reflective blog is actually the most challenging aspect of Critical Making; the effort involved in pouring over academic research, conceptualizing designs, solving technical problems and acquiring resources is so mentally and physically consuming that pausing to take photos, video and notes is usually last on the priority list.  When the process is going well, I want to elatedly move on to the next step; when the process is failing, I become far too mopey to want to talk about it.  In any case, this is something I definitely plan to improve on, to make more of a habit of posting regular, frequent updates (Matt also apparently has a gadget that might help in this regard, but more on that later) for the remainder of this project and in the future.  For now, the following few entries serve as a catch-up to where I am now in making the MarkIT device and related artifacts.

As learned in past Critical Making experiments, there are countless ways in which electronic signals can be translated into physical movement.  In considering the options for this project, I am now much more aware that motors are perhaps the most common and serve as a gateway to the possibilities of the world of robotics.  So as a very first step, in order to ‘break in to’ and begin thinking about relevant technological issues, a simple DC  (direct current) motor was studied.  And in true Critical Making fashion, this meant hacking an existing device to gain the necessary parts – in this case, the now-obsolete CD slot from a discarded PC.  Digital control of a DC motor requires the use of an ‘H-bridge’, which allows for the adjustment of both speed and direction when connected to the Arduino microcontroller:

int pinEnable = 9;
// Motor movement pins:
int pin1 = 6;
int pin2 = 7;
int motorSpeed = 100;

void setup() {
pinMode(pinEnable, OUTPUT);
pinMode(pin1, OUTPUT);
pinMode(pin2, OUTPUT);
} // Close setup

void loop() {
analogWrite(pinEnable, motorSpeed);
digitalWrite(pin1, HIGH); //
digitalWrite(pin2, LOW);
// Disable motor:
digitalWrite(pinEnable, LOW);
//switch directions:
analogWrite(pinEnable, motorSpeed);
digitalWrite(pin1, LOW);
digitalWrite(pin2, HIGH);
} // Close main loop

One of the key principles behind the H-bridge is that it keeps the ‘logic’ and ‘power’ systems of the motor separate, which makes a lot of sense particularly if one were to employ a high-torque motor such as those used to power electric bicycles (to hint at a future project…).  The amount of ‘travel’ of the motor is defined by the delay function in the code, essentially letting the motor run for a certain time at a certain speed.  Then, again because of the separation of logic from power, the Arduino code can then instruct the motor to switch direction.  While DC motors could theoretically provide the drive needed to power the MarkIT machine, the code-dependent delay function is not quite accurate enough for the scope of this project, for which a measure of precision in directing primary ‘gestural’ movement is desired.

To achieve the desired accuracy, enter the ‘stepper’ motor.  As the name implies, the stepper differs from the DC motor in that it revolves in discreet increments or ‘steps’, allowing for a much greater level of control.  This relative accuracy has made the stepper the basis for countless electronic devices with moving parts, including the vast array of consumer desktop printers and scanners – the obsolescent models of which provide an endless smorgasbord of usable parts for the taking.  So again, in true hacker form, the beds of old, clunky scanners were unscrewed to access components.

However, because they are somewhat more involved electronically, controlling a stepper motor with an Arduino is far trickier than controlling the DC motor, especially if one were to attempt to do it ‘from scratch’.  For help in this area, the ongoing work of Britain’s RepRap foundation ( is both inspirational as well as a key resource for practical solutions.  As explained on their website, this group is dedicated to making computer numerically controlled (CNC) rapid prototyping technology, long the exclusive domain of large-scale industrial enterprises, affordable and readily accessible to the average user, on an open-source basis.  Especially notable is the goal that RepRap machines be able to replicate themselves by 3D printing with plastic polymer the key parts necessary to make another.  At this time, it appears that this goal is being met with mixed success among the user community; however, it does seem inevitable that the rate of self-replication will grow as the machines become (as most open-source projects do) increasingly bug-free, accurate and refined.

Like many multi-axis CNC mills, RepRaps are driven by stepper motors, and its designers have done the key legwork (in terms of software and circuitry) necessary to control stepper motors with an Arduino.  No need to reinvent the wheel, then; the MarkIT project will piggyback this technology and adapt it to our own purposes (becoming, in RepRap terms, a ‘RepStrap’ or bootstrapped RepRap).  With this as a direction, Matt (who has been familiar with RepRaps for some time) ordered a kit of parts from MakerBot (RepRap’s similar-yet-distinct American cousin):  Rather than summarize the entire contents of the kit, I’ll describe each item as it was assembled, studied, and experimented with in the next blog entries.

Bob’s summer project! MarkIT: Introduction

June 15, 2009Bobmarkit, projects0


The project described herein is not about art; it is an investigation into the affectual dimensions of information technology.  However, this project does have its origins in a few highly personal reflections on drawing and painting, one of which I think will help to set some background for the ensuing discussion.

When I was in my early teens, my parents (perhaps in an effort to offset a heavy bias toward science in molding their kids’ academic futures) arranged for my brother and I to receive private weekly instruction in traditional Chinese brush painting from a local Vancouver artist.  These lessons, conducted at the dining room table, involved the teacher first producing a demonstration painting as my brother and I watched.  These compositions were archetypal, depicting well-worn subjects taken from nature, of which birds, flowers, insects and branches were common.  Watching each painting unfold, we witnessed the artist’s mastery of deeply traditional techniques – mixing the palette, proper holding of the brush, and the gestural movements of connecting brush to paper.  At the risk of gross oversimplification, the ‘trick’ to this discipline of painting was to load up the brush with multiple layers of color and water, then press and drag the bristles against the translucent white ‘rice paper’ to direct and orchestrate the manner in which the pigmented ink would both soak into and spread (by means of capillary action) out over the sheet.  By making a series of these fluid, somewhat ‘organic’ marks upon the paper, the desired image was formed.  As a student observer, it was impossible to avoid being awestruck by the vividness of the resultant images, which often attained a high degree of ‘realism’ with what appeared to be minimal ‘fuss’.

In the second phase of the lesson, it was then up to me and my brother to reproduce our own version of the painting we had just observed materialize.  As could be expected, however, replicating techniques after simply watching did not come easily.  In fact, more often than not, the remainder of the session involved (in a manner not unlike a tennis or golf instructor directing proper ‘swing’) the teacher placing his hands over ours, to then physically (and sometimes forcefully) guide the movements so that we as his students could both see and feel the nature of proper technique.

On one particular week, the artist brought in a painting from his body of exhibited work.  It was much larger than the ‘tabletop’ sized pieces produced in our lessons, measuring about four feet across and three feet high, the paper pressed under glass and professionally framed.  In addition to its larger size, this piece was also striking because the subject matter was abstract; instead of a figurative scene from nature, this image was composed of groupings of color ‘masses’.  Resembling large ‘blobs’ of ink, they were an exaggerated manifestation and expression of the essential spirit of traditional Chinese brush technique.  Here, the phenomena of ‘soaking’ the sheet and ‘spreading’ the pigment had been both obsessed over and celebrated within a more contemporary idiom.  Because of the depth and variation of hue, intensity and darkness, the blobs seemed to be ‘things’ unto themselves, capable of ‘speaking of’ or ‘speaking for’ a vast wealth of emotions and messages.  As my first real exposure to and appreciation of what could be classified as a variant of ‘abstract expressionism’, this painting has remained in my thoughts consistently over the years.   Perhaps more than its specific visual impact, I regularly contemplate the manner of its making.  From what I remember of literally being ‘guided by the hand’ in learning the foundational techniques, I stand in profound appreciation of what must have been an extremely involved process of engagement by the artist to produce such an evocative artifact.

Financial Meltdown

The current worldwide economic downturn, beginning roughly in late 2007, has been widely spoken of as “the worst since the Great Depression” (ref).  Indeed, there is no shortage of evidence to prop up such alarmist claims: freefalling stock markets; sub-prime mortgage defaults; failures, bankruptcies and government bailouts of the largest and most significant corporations in the US and worldwide; skyrocketing unemployment; depleted pension funds; exposure of audacious fraud schemes.  The media, of course, has been hard at work feeding and stoking the anxious public with descriptions of each new blow to an increasingly pulverized state of economic affairs.  And finally, digital networks (most notably the Internet) have assumed their now ubiquitous role as the means by which data and information pertaining to this ‘crisis’ are stored, accessed, created, processed, stolen, shared and discussed.

As both an observer and a participant in this recession, and one who has absolutely no formal (and very little informal) education in the area of finance, what has struck me as most disconcerting is the ongoing media commentary put forth by various economists, pundits and other so-called ‘experts’.  To put it in the most blunt way possible, no one really knows what is actually going on.  It appears that the workings of today’s ‘postindustrial’ economies, particularly at national and international levels, are so complex and convoluted that ‘making sense’ of them in any meaningful way is virtually impossible.  This is especially true when attempting to forecast future outcomes and directions into which the economic picture will morph.  To the average person, this frightening and vexing scenario is made still worse by what appears to be a general lack of accountability, ethics and plain ‘common sense’ amongst the elite culture at the highest levels of business and investing (ref).  Furthermore, it is has been argued rather convincingly that it is exactly these deficiencies in judgment which engineered and precipitated the meltdown, by putting into place systems of lending, credit, insurance and so on which “by their very nature were designed to fail” (ref).  Regulators did not catch these deficiencies, not only because they were blatantly deceived, but also because they were not ‘tuned in to the right channels’, so to speak, and therefore ‘missed’ the warning signs.  In short, while it appears that the current manner in which human beings inform themselves and engage with financial information fulfills various pragmatic requirements, the general ugliness related above underscores a gaping need for serious critical examination.

Critical Making

Information technology has and continues to play an integral role as the way in which human beings interact with economic conditions – a concept which will be much elaborated upon later.  Suffice to say, there have been many devices utilized to aid in the attempt to read and understand market conditions, including, for example: charts, tables, graphs and ticker tape.  The last one, the ‘ticker’ (historically output on paper and now on computer screen), is particularly interesting because it represents a means by which stock codes and prices are outputted ‘in real time’, as contrasted by the other forms which interpret, process, summarize and present data in a relatively static moment (at the end of trading day or week, for example).

As graduate student in the field of information studies, and more specifically in the area of ‘Critical Making’ (, the scenario outlined above gives rise to questions as to the nature of those technologies that link us to the economic world.  Open to investigation is the manner in which computers and other technological devices take vast amounts of confounding financial data and reduce it to simplified forms and codes.  Upon these forms of output, decisions are made (by experts and laypersons alike) which have potentially grave consequences on bank balances both large and small – from multinational corporations to individual investors, to those who simply want to earn a living wage.  Considering the current sorry state of affairs, could alternative devices be proposed which might engage people to financial markets in a different, perhaps more ‘human’ way?

It is thus that this personal study project is conceived.  In keeping with the mission statement of the Critical Making Lab to investigate theoretical concepts by way of concurrent experimentation, prototyping and fabrication of physical objects and devices, I would like to propose, introduce, and document here the development of MarkIT: An alternative piece of technology for engagement with economic data on more emotional or ‘affectual’ levels.  At the time of writing, the MarkIT pre-alpha prototype is envisioned as a reaction to the increasing banality of ubiquitous output devices such as computer monitors and inkjet printers.  It is conceived to act on a few key levels: First, like a stock ticker, it will read incoming economic data from the Web as it unfolds in real time.  Second, it will translate this data digitally and codify it into a series of ‘gestures’ in computer code.  Third, the machine will operate similarly to (and share technology and parts with) other Cartesian robots such as scanners, printers (both 2D and 3D) as well as other CNC devices used for rapid prototyping.  These technologies will be utilized to transfer the digital ‘gestures’ into the physical realm, to produce actual mechanical movement that will in turn be harnessed to physically modify surface media in manners visual, tactile, performative and productive.  It should be noted that again, as per Critical Making practice, the dimensions outlined above are continuously open to revision, refinement and reflexive critique, and thus any of the stated intentions may change at will.  Also as per Critical Making practice, this project will be carried out in conjunction with academic research, writing and discussion touching upon the following themes: affect and texture; ‘postsocial’ relations and technological ‘objects of attachment’; drawings and inscriptions; spatial and ‘situationist’ performance.  Finally, to close this introduction, I would like to dedicate this highly personal work to the artist/teacher (name withheld out of respect) who played such a key part in imbuing in me a sense of artistry to things created by hand – whether brushing ink on paper, or soldering together circuits and components.

More to come…

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