27 July, 2012

I helped out on TOG‘s stand at the Dublin Mini Maker Faire, and we took along the duck-matrix display that Rob built. The rubber ducks sit in rows* on black shelves, and each duck can be individually lit to generate whatever patterns you care to program into the attached Arduino. (This sort of thing is very Rob.)

A *lot* of ducks.

Did I mention that TOG has a lot of ducks?

After a while, I noticed that most visitors to our stand needed to know whether the ducks were just resting on the shelves, or were attached in some way.

In particular, the top right duck.

Pretty sure this is the top right duck and not the top left duck. Pretty sure.

This one.

Some people just stared at it, unsure whether they were allowed to touch the display. Many people gently tested it, casually, while asking us about something else. The kids ran up and gave it a good yank, and having discovered that the duck was firmly glued to the shelf, a few kids systematically pulled at all the other ducks until their parents noticed and told them to stoppit.

Always the same unspoken question. Always the top right duck.

Seeing this pattern repeat over and over began to bother me. We are individuals with free will, but maybe not as much as we think. We share the same responses to an unusual object, modulated by how often our parents told us to stoppit. When I took a break and went to the other stands, I probably did the same thing. Picked up the same 3D-printed geary whatchamacallit as every other visitor. Fiddled with it, carefully, in the same way. Except that now I am second-guessing myself: why that thing? Why that response?

All I had to do on the stand was smile and say hello and explain the ducks, not fall into some kind of internal philosophical debate about determinism.

This is why I should not be left alone on stands.

** Preemptive Terrible Dad Joke: yes, TOG has its ducks in a row. Actually, that is a lie: we don’t have enough room to line up that many ducks. Also, we are not very organised.

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