About Extreme Inventing

What is it?

Extreme inventing is the art of recognizing and using the innate functionality of found objects. Such objects can be natural (like stone opposite) or artefactual (designed by a human). Simply recognizing functionality is not enough. The title Extreme Inventor is given only to someone who recognizes and then captures a property of a found object by incorporating it into a unique system, such as a prototype. In actuality, most extreme inventions will be a one-off, an ad hoc or temporary system, but then all inventions start off that way. Today’s extreme might be tomorrow’s humdrum normal.

Why create a blog called Extreme Inventing?

The first reason is to draw your attention. Having done so, I can reveal to you there’s nothing really extreme about Extreme Inventing in fact it’s pretty ordinary and something we all do, and on a regular basis—especially children. On the other hand, since society at large believes to invent you need to be an extra ordinary individual, some kind of genius with God-given creativity, then suggesting inventing is ordinary, that it comes quite naturally to all of us, and is without question a social rather than an individual phenomenon, might be considered an extreme position. So, yes! This is a blog that takes an extreme position on invention and innovation with serious intent: to tempt, to encourage, the efforts of seemingly ordinary people to invent, and it exists to exemplify their good works, however extreme (within reasonable ethical guidelines, of course.

Resuming normality

What we will be attempting to demonstrate in this blog is that Extreme Inventing is the norm. We all invent. Note that I’m not saying simply we have the potential to invent, but that we do, all of us, from kids to grandparents— actually invent. It’s the natural thing to do. The plain truth is we cannot help but invent, and, most probably, we have that innate inventiveness (or creativity if you prefer) knocked out of us during our early school years. Ironically, having succeeded in reducing individual inventiveness to virtually zero by the end of formal schooling, nearly all governments are trying desperately to revive it in the hope that it can be channelled into new enterprise formations and economic regeneration.

Below are some things we would like to say about (extreme) inventing.

Temporary Novelty

All inventions begin as one-offs. If you pick up a steak knife to cut a knotted shoelace, then you are using it for something it was not designed for. At the instant of the cut, a novel system is created, which lasts as long as the cutting.  What you did with the steak knife—the found object— was recognize the useful property, namely its sharpness, and then incorporated it into a system for cutting shoelaces rather than steak. If my dear departed Mam had caught me cutting shoelaces with a table knife she would have said I was being extreme, and foolhardy, by using it improperly. That she would have recognized and applauded such inventiveness, is very unlikely. And yet, when our children are very young, we do recognize this kind of inventiveness and encourage it through toys like Lego, dressing-up boxes, and cardboard boxes. For example, I recall our youngest son Oliver, drawing a caravan built around my bicycle (my favourite form of transport) so I could take everyone on holiday without having the stress of driving.

Emergent functionality

There is another aspect of inventing that is appropriately labelled ‘extreme’.  We can often discover, or distinguish, new properties, and thus new potential functionality within a system we are already engaged with. For example, take the humble flat nosed screwdriver. If you have used this tool to open paint cans, or as a chisel, then you have discovered a property and utilized it in a way the original product designer may not have thought of. Discovering the screwdriver’s function as a lever, is a what we might describe as emergent functionality. In other words, the new function emerges from experience of using the tool. This is also intimately connected to user-innovation. Once that new function is discovered it can then be designed into a new system. Bear in mind that the system, for screw driving in this case, comprises the tool, the tool user, the objects of the user’s action, namely the screw, and whatever material/substance it is being screwed into. This system is also a solution. Search the posts for examples of emergent functions.

Social Objects

What I had in mind in the previous paragraph was emergent technical functions, or rather material functions. Ones that are causes of material or physical effects. But many simple tools have become social objects. Again emerging from use as part of a sociotechnical system, they come to have meaning beyond the material. In practice, they become instruments of social co-ordination and change. When this happens we say they become symbolic. In the same way as emergent material functionality, once recognized, social functionality can be incorporated into a new design. Tools that become instruments of social change are likewise redesigned to enhance this new functionality. For example, applying decoration to otherwise simple tools is part of this process of social instrument making, which leads to an elaboration or objects complexification, as otherwise simple objects are imbued with additional meaning. This takes us to another extreme dimension of technical objects that influence the way they are designed.


The anthropologist Alfred Gell developed a theory of art that would embrace both the modern and what some called primitive art or ethnic or even tribal art, typically from tribal peoples in Africa, Papua New Guinea, South Pacific, Australia and the Americas, and so on. In such societies, as it also was in more ancient times in the so-called Western culture, ‘artworks’ were produced by crafts folk who had such consummate skill that a layperson could not tell how they were made. Crafters/artists appeared to have magical powers to shape material, to create colours, and this lifted the artist’s standing in the community and created both fear and respect for the supernatural power he or she seemingly controlled. Such skill could also create similar feelings in a group’s enemies. This, I believe, is as appropriate to any kind of product, not only artworks. Yes, can be enchanted by an artist’s work today. How did they create this or that effect on the paper or canvas? We do become intrigued by technical virtuosity of crafter, but we are also enchanted by many other kinds of products. In such cases we are enchanted by makers and designers, like Jonathan Ives V-P of Industrial Design at Apple. Does Ives induce fear and respect in competitors? So here is another dimension of extreme-inventing captured in the question: Wow, how did they make that?

Nonhuman Others

This is another extreme aspect of invention. There is a group of academics who called themselves actor-network theorists. Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law (my personal favourite) recognize the role that nonhuman Others play in social life. For example, as I walk into my local supermarket, the doors open automatically. The doors are nonhuman Others. Their role as actors is as legitimate as yours or mine. However, its not just a modern phenomenon, we have been incorporating nonhuman actors into our technical systems forever, we just haven’t recognized them. Nor do we treat them as equals (as actor-network theorists do), until they go wrong, or take a holiday, as the wind that pushed the sails of a sailing boat does from time to time. Kites are inventions that rely on nonhuman others. When I’ve finished writing this piece and upload it, I’m relying on a series of nonhuman Others to get it to the point when you, dear reader, can read it.

Nonhuman others are our co-actors, and sometimes our imaginary friends, or even spirits, of the woods, of the sea, of the sky, of the sun. When we can’t explain something, we humans often fill the gap with a spirit, or a god (or two). So when it comes to inventing explanations, nonhuman actors have been pretty important to us for a very long time.

However, having more earthly concerns here, the question is, what nonhuman Other can be captured in your extreme design? Will you use a mouse in a wheel to generate power to recharge your mobile phone?

Go invent—extremely.

Now that we have some ground rules, what we need  now is your examples of extreme inventions.


2 Comments on “About Extreme Inventing”

  1. ttocs1 08/05/2012 at 2:17 pm #

    This is very interesting Pete – great work – think there’s a lot of mileage for topical study here

    • Pete Bond 18/05/2012 at 8:08 am #

      Thanks Ian. If you have some examples let me know.

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