Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock and the Evolution of an Engineer

I missed an important part of the story of Ahmed’s clock, and the public misunderstanding.

I heard about it when it happened. Rather than an encouraging word, the school meeting Ahmed with suspension and suspicion. Fear. Mishandling by police seeing the world through a terrorism prism and incapable of understanding the curiosity and accomplishment of a tinkerer through their fear. Even President Obama’s attempt to restore rationality by inviting Ahmed to the White House.

I tripped over this blog posting today: https://medium.com/absurdist/ahmed-mohamed-after-the-clock-stopped-b9f796e268b6#.9w1076aev. In case you don’t want to read the whole thing, this paragraph upset me, and took me back to my earlier days:

The second wave of attention was less friendly. Pictures surfaced of his clock, the internet analyzed it, and decided that it was in fact a commercial clock with the outside hacked off and placed in a pencil case that looked like a fancy metal suitcase. People got upset, saying he had not “made” the clock since he really only took it apart and put it in the case. Since he had not personally wired the clock together (like all nerds tell themselves they had the patience and motivation to do when they were 14) it was decided that he had willfully lied about making it. I personally feel you’d be hard-pressed to find a 14-year-old child who did not exaggerate their personal accomplishments, and that many adults have the same failing, but it broke the illusion of this child being the perfect victim of circumstance, the child prodigy held down by the ignorance and racism of adults.

I celebrate that I am part of a virtuous community of people who see through the skin of products, and engage with the parts — by repurposing, changing, enhancing, reusing, studying, seeking to understand, and simply playing. So many people in the world don’t see the parts — seeing only a computer, or a radio, or an automobile. Or a clock. They aren’t motivated by the urgent curiosity, even the compulsion to understand, to modify, and ultimately to invent and contribute.

In the developing story about Ahmed and his clock, I had missed that some in the community of makers condemned Ahmed because he had not made enough of the clock himself. They state that he lied about making the clock, because all he did was repackage a manufactured clock in a different box. I find this inexcusable. I also take issue with Katy Levinson‘s comments. She further asserts that Ahmed was exaggerating his accomplishment.

Although I respect Richard Dawkins for his creativity and objectivity, he join the multitudes against Ahmed — perhaps led the charge — with this chain of tweets: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/richard-dawkins-accuses-ahmed-mohamed-of-committing-fraud_55fed260e4b08820d918fe9b?ncid=txtlnkusaolp00000592. I can only take this as proof that brilliant people can be wrong.

Underneath the criticism that Ahmed had “lied” about making the clock is a judgment about what it means to “make” something. This seems simple to answer… did I make something or did I not make it. But every engineer knows that everything is made of things that are, themselves, made by others. If I construct a circuit, I may have wired the components, but I didn’t make the components. I didn’t etch the transistors. I didn’t wind the foil in the capacitors. Or, one level deeper, I didn’t refine the aluminum to make the foil, or grow the silicon crystals upon which the transistors are etched.

Is it cheating to assemble a kit, and say one has made it? Some kits are simply parts to mount in a box, just as Ahmed may have done, yet we honor the effort with the tag “maker”.

I did nearly the same thing as Ahmed as a kid. I found a “broken” transistor radio. Nothing was really wrong with it, but the case was shattered. I removed the parts, mounted them in a box I made of Masonite(R), and proudly showed off the radio I had “made”. Was I lying?

I built some Heathkit equipment back in the day. I carefully followed detailed instructions, and although I cut and soldered, I didn’t really understand what I was doing. Did I make it?

Over time, I began to understand more, and design more, and fill in more of the details myself. If I wasn’t making then, when did I start?

Everything is “made” by transforming one thing into another. The miracle is the transformation. The bit of “smarts” is to understand that transformation is possible, and to have the drive to realise it. The impulse to transform is the energy that drives engineering progress. That impulse must be nourished through camaraderie and community. Through knowing other engineers, other “makers”, we expand our craft, increase our understanding, and have a wider pallet of ideas and experience. In this community I found my peers, my mentors, and my home.

I am pained that a budding spirit, just beginning on the “making” life, was disowned and shamed by my community. I can’t tell if it was racism, or the competitive “I make it better than you do” attitude that constitutes one of the hazing rituals so many of us have to overcome.

Either way, we have lost.

How many others, outside the context of Islamophobia or racism, do we lose from this work because the dream is crushed? How many girls? How many boys?

For the sake of the next engineers, for the sake of a world needing creative attention, let’s recognize and nourish any flicker of “making”.