Emily Markwiese.  Photo by Tira Howard Photography

Emily Markwiese. Photo by Tira Howard Photography

 

Words by Emily Markwiese

I had very little access to tech education growing up in New Mexico. I grew up with a microbiologist dad, so by proxy I spent lots of time listening to him talk about — and later researching on my own — the imperceptible, complex systems and processes that compose the natural world. Tech felt like an extension of that to me: a sandbox where those unseen systems, processes and rules could be recreated and manipulated. 

When I was 16, I was awarded a scholarship to the University of Art and Design for poetry. Up until that point, I had only informally interacted with tech, only informally learned anything about it. I went into college with every intention of leaving Santa Fe afterwards. It would take something really, really big changing in my world to understand the anomaly that Santa Fe is, how there are things happening here that really wouldn’t be able to happen anywhere else.

I wasn’t seeking out a big change at the time, was still fairly heart-set on leaving the state — but the second year into my studies at the university, I met Vince (co-founder of Meow Wolf) while I was working another job. I’d heard murmurings of something new happening to do with Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. I approached him with simple conversation; I didn’t go into it with an enormous game plan. I just told him I wanted to help, and they happened to be looking for a writer. I showed up for the first narrative team meeting when the entire group was still working out of an old warehouse in the Siler industrial district. 

I started working part-time on the narrative team in between going to school and working another job. I’d been writing for many years, but writing for a physical space — that people were intended to experience along no defined path — called into question everything I’d learned about structuring narrative up to that point. We were attempting to create a story that would eventually become an environment, that could be told through a myriad of conduits, very few of them being purely text based. The tech team played a big part in creating a structure through which nontraditional narrative could be conveyed. Beyond the occasional all-team meetings I didn’t formally interact with tech much, but I was at least peripherally aware of the work they were doing and became increasingly more interested in the projects they were working on, so I started attending these small demos they’d put on for the rest of the group.

I still remember going to the first one. They were demonstrating a new way of controlling lights that they said was the start of some really big possibilities for large-scale installations. After the demo I remember feeling like I’d just accidentally been allowed to peer into some secret corner of the world, because it felt like such total magic to me. I don’t even think the people on the actual tech team were as excited as I was. Later on, in an all-team meeting the tech team put out a call for volunteers to help them populate components on a substantial number of PCBs one of the designer developers had created to control lighting for  the entirety of the upcoming HOER exhibit. I immediately found the director of the tech team afterwards and told him I could start working on it the next day, which I did. 

Photo By Tira Howard Photography

Photo By Tira Howard Photography

Assembling those PCBs was the first time I’d ever worked with a soldering iron, the first time I’d interacted with Arduino or WS protocol. I ended up assembling about 400 boards over the course of the first month or so of volunteering; when it was done, I wanted to keep going, wanted to learn about everything they were doing. I think people on the tech team were surprised by how interested I was in every part of the process, or by how much I wanted to continue working on that team. Lots of people on the team had grown up learning how to code or had been doing it for multiple decades; I think the things I was finding to be so fascinating had already become second nature to them, so it was maybe unusual for them to see someone take such an intense interest. But I was seeing a part of the world that I previously didn’t know existed for the first time.

I worked on the tech team as a Technical Fabricator for the duration of the HOER build and now, four years later, I’m a Technical Project Manager. Our team went from 12 to 50 people in three years and the things we’re doing right now would have seemed like an impossible dream to us even just two years ago. Being able to watch and be a part of how the technical processes have adapted to accommodate the growth of the company as a whole has been mind-bending. It’s really remarkable how one person’s inkling of an “I think there’s a better way to do this” idea can change the way an entire team thinks and works.

It’s still hard for me to believe this is my job on certain days. The odds of finding a career in tech in New Mexico — under the age of 30, as a woman, and as someone who is self-educated — are not good ones. It’s for this reason tech education is so important to me. New Mexico is so far behind the rest of the country in terms of providing accessible tech education. There’s a huge amount of work being put toward that effort by community organizers and educators who understand how crucial it is, but the state has to get behind it first.

I think part of the dilemma with tech education is that it’s extremely difficult to learn tech in a vacuum — especially if you’ve not grown up around it, if it’s not easily accessible to you and if you have no connection between tech and your personal world. I was fortunate enough to be in an environment where I saw an immediate relationship between the tech I was just learning to use and its ultimate result. I was learning about tech as something that people interact with in a way that is not purely utilitarian but exploratory, tech that is actually creating the living parts of these massive art exhibitions/environments.

I think part of the dilemma with tech education is that it’s extremely difficult to learn tech in a vacuum — especially if you’ve not grown up around it, if it’s not easily accessible to you and if you have no connection between tech and your personal world.

The point of contact for me was experiencing tech as a platform that allowed for nonlinear narrative to be reactive to interactive, moved through, stored in a space; how things like capacitive touch, proximity sensing, location positioning, etc., give you the opportunity to recreate that feeling of participating in an endlessly complex ecosystem of things. Using these technologies to sense where people are in a space, what they've passed by/through, and when they've touched something allows you to make any object a point of interaction, to turn anything into a control panel or interface that has the capability to alter the conditions of the environment it lives in. Even simply being able to see a light turn on because you typed something on your computer is huge if you’ve never interacted with technology of any kind before and are trying to learn how to code, how tech influences a physical environment, etc.

Some of the most profound moments of personal education for me have been the ones where I’ve used things or seen other people use things for purposes outside of their original or standard intention. During HOER we made a narrative “prop” of sorts that required us to take apart old CRTs and convert them into oscilloscopes, which were then “played” as instruments using a panel of copper disks that were capacitive touch responsive. We were relying on technology that can be taught in a structured way, and that has a set of standards and best practices. But we also had this collection of analog machinery, narrative objects as functional instruments, visual programming software and micro controllers that when combined, made for an altogether very nonstandard situation. It’s still to this day one of my favorite projects to have ever worked on.

And that’s really true for most of the way I think about tech as a whole. There is no standard model of people who work in or with tech, and there’s no correct method. Tech to me is ultimately a way to create connections between things where there wouldn’t otherwise be any — and there is a place waiting for anyone who’s interested in forming those connecting points.