Increasingly, individuals are interacting with the world through the virtual interface of computers. Children play with iPads rather than blocks or erector sets. Physical intuition plays a role in invention of physical objects, architecture, and engineering. None of us is totally disconnected from the physical world, which is potentially a dangerous place requiring intuition to navigate safely. How can physical interactive displays be used to allow people to test their own physical intuition that develops through interaction with the real world and emerge with at least an awareness of its importance and their level of proficiency?
Katherine Ellen Foley, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
New York University, Science, Health, and Environmental Writing Program
The team worked on ways to define and improve physical intuition in an increasingly technological world and concluded that the core problem is that, as we become more dependent on technology, we lose some of the sense of connection with our physical bodies. For example, our cell phone screens may distract us at the office, and, more dangerously, they may also command our attention while we walk through city streets. They may put us at risk for tripping or having an accident, but also take opportunities
away from us to make social connections with others. This potential disconnect can ultimately affect our work and well-being.
“Learning intuition in one area helps you learn intuition in other areas,” said one member of the group. The group discussed how this idea—known as knowledge transfer—could apply to both the digital and the physical world. For example, when a user understands how to use one computer program, he can likely apply his skills to navigate others manufactured by the same company. Conversely, if a woman has a background in rock climbing, she will likely be able to use the same physical intuition to cross an icy pathway without falling.
The group recognized that knowledge transfer through different activities could help people solve seemingly impossible challenges by inspiring them to think of creative solutions. Often, when we’re stuck on a problem, stepping away from it and engaging in an unrelated activity gives our mind a chance to wander. When we later come back to the task at hand, we’ll often find that subconsciously, we’ve thought of a totally novel approach to solve it—indirectly inspired by the irrelevant task. The group decided that they wanted to provide people with a means of gaining additional knowledge transfer through “tools of unknown purpose.”
Tools are only tools in the context in which they are used. “Tools of unknown purpose,” therefore, are similar to toys: They are objects with no specific use, and can therefore be applied to whatever task we choose. For example, in a construction setting, a hammer can be used to nail boards together. In an artistic setting, though, it could be used to uniquely spread paint across canvas. The group felt that playing with these ambiguous tools could help reboot physical intuition and social experiences in an increasingly technological world by forcing us to think creatively outside of our daily routine.
“Tools of Unknown Purpose: A Traveling Exhibition,” would be a mobile demonstration. It would start out by working with teenagers—who straddle the playfulness of childhood and the experience of adulthood—and ultimately reach diverse groups, including children, people who are temporarily or permanently physically disabled, and adults. The team envisioned that it would be a “containerized toolshed . . . of ambiguous tooling, lost ritual, and specialist profession,” according to a member of the seed group.
They envisioned that the exhibit would be held in a shipping container, similar to a train car, filled with items ranging from dental tools, construction devices, and unidentifiable objects for participants to touch, feel, and use to alter materials—all without descriptions. It will appear in locations
such as college campuses, farmers’ markets, shopping malls, and community centers for about 1 month at a time. By providing tools that are “mysterious, intriguing, and obviously related to the body,” according to a member of the group, the exhibit will encourage participants to play with physical materials, and take time to disengage from technology as much as possible.
Participants will have the opportunity to use these tools to play with, mold, create, and destroy structures made from plywood, plastic, and materials unique to the local environment, such as different types of timber, debris from storms, or even scraps of materials community construction projects. This approach is more environmentally friendly and ensures that each location provides a unique experience.
The tools featured in the exhibit will be a mix of relics from the past and future: Some of the tools will be objects like ancient dental or culinary tools. Others will have a futuristic design, like “complex tooling for navigating difficult virtual data-scapes,” as one team member said. There are no wrong ways to interact with any of these items; the team emphasized that participants should know that it’s impossible to fail during their time in the exhibition. The purpose of these tools is to encourage participants to play in ways that may not solve an immediate important need. In the group’s final presentation, one member suggested that some of these tools could be used to create remixed versions of popular songs, including Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”
The group recognized that it would be important to collect data about how participants use these tools. They envisioned that each of the tools will be equipped with software to record the ways in which they are moved and used. By studying the different ways people use these items, the exhibition will help develop a metric for measuring physical intuition. Ultimately, these data could then inform the ways we could ultimately improve physical intuition. These same metrics could demonstrate the ways in which the program is successful and how it could be improved in the future.
The group proposed additional ways for teenagers specifically to engage in the exhibit. First, it will only employ other teenagers to guide participants, in order to make it more accessible. They concluded that teenagers would most likely respond with less inhibition and more open minds with these tools if they felt they could relate to a peer. In addition, some members of the group wanted to engage teenagers’ own digital presence. Rather than trying to force participants to give up their phones, they decided that they could take pictures and videos of users while they meander through the exhibit. At the end of the show, participants could choose which of the
images or videos they would like uploaded to their personal social media accounts, such as Facebook and Instagram.
Only at the end of the show would users learn the original intent of each of these tools. Ideally, they will be both surprised by how their own intuition differed from the original design, and filled with wonder as they connect with these tools in the same way they were intended years ago.
By recognizing their own creativity, participants will retain a lasting reinforcement of their internal physical intuition. As each of the group members discovered through personal experiences, having creative physical intuition can solve challenges across a variety of disciplines. Awareness of physical intuition—and a newly sparked curiosity about its value—will create a network of 21st-century problem solvers that will approach technological challenges from unique stances.
Our dependency on technology to solve problems will not change, but we can remember to emphasize the importance of physical wonderment as we advance both sciences and art.