Future Tense

Ahmed Mohamed Shows Why Makers and Hackers Care So Much About “Freedom to Tinker”

Could be a birdhouse, but then again … could be a bomb.

Photo from Nata Sdobnikova/Shutterstock

On Monday, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested in Irving, Texas, for bringing a homemade clock to school to show his engineering teacher. Because it was not a polished consumer product and instead had visible electronic components, school officials and police feared that it was a bomb or model of a bomb. And having a name like Ahmed Mohamed” doesn’t seem to have helped. (The good news is that police dropped the case Wednesday.)

For the maker and hacker communities, the incident demonstrates ongoing tension between hobbyists and those who fear independent, unchecked research. Hackers and makers particularly intersect with this issue because of their desires to take both physical and digital devices apart, learn how they work, learn how to break them, and then build new things.

Blogger and CEO of app database Makerbase Anil Dash showed strong support for Mohamed on Twitter, as did others.

The situation is sadly familiar. Gizmodo editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz remembered a story from 2008 about a Canadian college chemistry student building a workshop in his parents garage and getting arrested on accusations of running a meth lab. And there was an incident in 2013 where a Florida high schooler was arrested for testing out an aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner volcano.

Edward Felten, the director of the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy and the founder of the “Freedom to Tinker” blog, wrote in 2013 that:

The biggest enemy of the freedom to tinker is the “permission culture” in which anything we want to do requires permission from some powerful entity. Permission culture punishes us not for crossing boundaries or causing damage, but for acting “without authorization”—and it cranks up the penalties to make sure we get the message.

Gotta get approval before you bring a project to school!

At the Blackhat hacker conference in Las Vegas last month, keynote speaker Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and a defense lawyer who frequently represents hackers, talked about Freedom to Tinker.” She concluded, “Today we’ve reached an inflection point. If we change paths, it is still possible that the Dream of Internet Freedom can become true. But if we don’t, it won’t. The Internet will continue to evolve into a slick, stiff, controlled and closed thing.”

And that’s before we can even begin to start talking about clock freedom.