Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Feynman walk into a room…

Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Feynman walk into a room

A little background.

Instructables is Autodesk’s world-spanning social tutorial platform. It provides authoring tools to tell the stories—the failures and successes, the “aha!” moments—about what our community members make via step-by-step social tutorials. Think of it as a personal lab journal that can inspire others. There are over 20 million users of Instructables. Anecdotal stories abound of community members joining, finding projects that inspire them or fit with an event in their lives, and how people moved from self-doubt—thinking they can’t do it themselves—to curiosity, to making something. One user in South America saw an Instructable posted by a student at the design school, Parsons in New York, learned about making things, started building, and ultimately applied to Parsons and was accepted. Another young woman in a community in Europe couldn’t find anyone to teach her how to build a complex digital component with circuit boards and coded behaviors and discovered Instructables and now can’t look back.

Authors create artifacts like photos of their tools, their work environment, their raw materials, their intermediate work products, their video clips, and their final creations. They create a step-by-step collection of instructions with keywords and phrases that either help another person get engaged and inspired, or understand how to build something. Because it is a social tutorial the comments help you to see how the author learns by explaining to others as well as where the tutorial “goes off the rails” and loses the thread of the story. The act of writing a tutorial may turn out to be a more foundational skill for all creators than we think as it allows tutorial makers a chance to reflect and build a story of their journey. Think of Instructables as a living lab book for lifelong learners.

Here is an example of a tutorial that we built to give a sense of how they work.

Ok with that background out of the way, Richard Feyman and Kurt Vonnegut walk into a room…

Richard Feynman was considered—by his peer physicists at Los Alamos—to be one of the (or the) smartest among them. He was a Nobel-winning physicist, educator, and polymath. He died being remembered as “the great explainer.” He had an incredibly productive, curious, creative life all the way until the very end—from the Manhattan Project and predicting the ability to construct machines out of atoms (now called nanotechnology) to helping puzzle out how the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster occurred. By the time he passed away he had created new diagramming methods that were credited by generations of physicists as how they learned to build on the central (and often confounding) ideas around quantum mechanics.

Kurt Vonnegut was a celebrated author who wrote for over 50 years and published 14 novels, numerous short stories, and a collection of non-fiction works as well as plays. His most famous was “Slaughterhouse-Five” inspired by his own time as a prisoner of war during World War 2. He was trained as a mechanical engineer in the lead-up to being deployed to Europe. He helped pioneer a news service at GE where journalists were encouraged to learn about the R&D activities going on and report to the public. That effort is now known as GE Reports. His books, “Player Piano,” and “Cat’s Cradle,” were inspired by the scientists he met at GE. GE found it fruitful to have storytellers walking the halls, asking questions, and getting the scientists to explain what they were doing, how they stumbled on a breakthrough, and why it mattered.

Not surprisingly while we think that “this time it’s different” when we talk about automation and the rise of machine learning, “Player Piano” was inspired by the work he saw at GE where it seemed that they were automating the jobs that humans used to define themselves. The rise of automation and what purpose humans had in life was a common theme in his work, likely inspired by what he saw as a child during the great depression.

Vonnegut called himself a “frustrated idealist” and believed that ideas mattered and that stories had power and could help take complex ideas and make them engaging so that more people could grapple with—and become literate about—the implications of what was to come.

He had a theory about storytelling that he used in the way he wrote that helped him decide how to write and what sort of journey the reader would go on along the way. He saw a pattern hidden in the history of stories and believed that there were only seven “shapes” of stories. He studied how we made these shapes and believed they were as important to study as the way we shape and make our physical artifacts. He believed that the old and new testaments of the Bible were basically the same shape as Cinderella for example. He identified shapes like “boy meets girl” and “man in hole.”  Each shape defines the hero’s journey from beginning to end. Often elements of different shapes of stories are combined to form sub-stories and looping narratives.

Stories help us explain the world to ourselves and move from one way of seeing the world to another. They help us dig ourselves out of holes we’ve gotten into, help us create our own origin mythologies, and help us simulate alternative futures in a way that lets us explore not only the big ideas but the gritty details of a possible course of action.

So, what do Feynman and Vonnegut have to do with Instructables?

Feynman discovered a way to be the most curious mind on the planet and not only learn many things but help others learn and extend them as “the great explainer.” Vonnegut noticed that the shape of stories was as important as the shape of things. Curiously our tools help people shape and make things. Instructables help people shape and make stories, and in the process, shape and make a more curious and active mindset and a larger community. We are facing malice that is not necessarily automation but rather an accelerating and pervasive sense of hopelessness. The future of work looks all too likely like the end of work, or that we’ll be left behind as ever more blue and more recently even white-collar, creative, and technical tasks are taken on by automation. Self-doubt is the enemy of our users and our customers. If not today, then in the next six months or 6 years. Writing Instructables may be a hidden superpower to move the current and next generation of makers from self-doubt to curious doer and help them build the ability to make that move again and again over their lives as the way we define ourselves and our purpose shifts.

We recently stumbled on a picture of Richard Feynman’s chalkboard on the day he died. Two admonitions to himself stand out. He wrote, “What I cannot create, I do not understand,” and “Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.”

What I cannot create I do not understand.

So how did he approach these challenges? It turns out he had a powerful way of learning about a new topic that interested him. When he wanted to understand (and hence create new work on) a given topic, he’d study the topic and then sit at his desk with a blank sheet of paper. He’d write out a step-by-step tutorial for a child to understand. He’d even speak out loud to practice explaining the topic. Whenever he found himself using jargon or the words from the accepted domain—rather than something a 7-year-old could understand—it flagged to him there was some aspect of the topic he didn’t understand. He’d go back and study more deeply and try to see if he could build on the topic himself (not just understand it but extend it in some way). He’d experiment with analogies, stories, and diagrams to illustrate a concept. When he could create new thinking about the topic, when he could explain the core ideas in a step-by-step way—by drawing diagrams and telling stories—he knew he had it. He perfected what became known as the “Feynman method.”

Two of Autodesk’s research interns–Yaoli Mao and Berto Ceballos–scraped 1,525 Instructables, interviewed 19 stakeholders, and did a 143 paper literature review around ways of learning. They applied machine learning models to the data they collected to see if they could detect some patterns about the journey a person takes while telling their Instructable story. Some curious signals came out.

As the author was building her tutorial she was expressing and demonstrating various mindsets, toolsets, and skillsets in the narrative. A further discovery was that she signaled affective elements as well like passion, curiosity stress, and concern.

What if we could help the next generation shape the stories they tell about themselves as they move from one role in their careers to the next? What if we could help them find their next passion as their current passion begins to wane (either due to automation or personal growth)?

What if we don’t?

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