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The Ship of Theseus

updated: 1/5/22

Map:

  1. Begin
  2. Sketch
  3. Microchips
  4. Espressif
  5. Wemos
  6. Connection
  7. Bibliography
  8. Authors
  9. Footnotes/Links

^

Beginning

This archeological study traces the Wemos D1 Mini from production through to its use as a hobbyist tool. This is an object that is slippery in non-specificity.

I'm evoking the story of the Ship of Theseus here in order for us to travel across this non-specificity, to visit the different zones of assembly, systems and being in a vessel that is made and re-made constantly depending on the time and place it is encountered. ⁠ (Footnote: This might relate to Yuk Hui's methodology around Orders of Magnitude (On The Existence of Digital Objects) )

The crew of this çhip (certainly not its captain) are perhaps the hobbyists.

I am using the term hobbyist here to indicate an actor that is engaged with a technology such that it is open to manipulation and sabotage. Concurrently the play of the hobbyist is at constant risk of being folded back in to capitalist modes of production. ⁠ (Footnote: Felix Stalder referencing Bill Gates' Open Letter to Hobbyists places the Hobbyist as the cause of the move towards the Free Software, Open Source ideologies. )

A Luddite archeological examination of an IoT development board and the modes of hobbyist practice that they facilitate.

This will be examined through:

Why?


^

Sketch

A starting point. Examining the field of interactions that produce the Wemos D1 Mini boards. These boards are 'cheap' and easy to acquire and program. Most commonly bought are clone boards. They mimic the components and layout of the Wemos.

Constant produced a body of research called Reclaiming Digital Infrastructure ⁠ (Footnote: constantvzw.org ) which is closely aligned with the processes of tracing and play explored here. One chapter of this defines a 'minifesto' for the Minimal Viable Learning environment.

A minimal viable way of learning...
...has a weight. A minimal viable learning environment is aware of sys-admin weight (maintenance), hardware weight (disk space), environmental weight (eco-footprints) and connectivity weight (network capacities).
— Reclaiming Digital Infrastructures - Constant

The concerns here are essentially the same but stretched over a different range of time (in which electrons are moving over chips). In focussing on the small, identifiable zone of the PCB we can attempt to answer these questions.

The key part of the board is the central module, the ESP8266. This is what provides the wifi functionality.

ESP8266 is the most popular and low cost WiFi SoC with TCP/IP stack and a low power 32 bit microcontroller manufactured by Espressif, a Shanghai based Chinese manufacturer.

What is Espressif? What are the infrastructures that support these kinds of boards?

These are hobbyist ⁠ (Footnote: To begin, I'm using hobbyist to denote the user whose operation of the board will be investigated. ) boards at that interact with the edges of larger systems.

The hobbyist is complicit with free software and open source chains; The tinkerer- waste time eked into a device. ⁠ (Footnote: The open source cycle breaks proprietay systems through this collective vampiric labour. )

How does this sequence of stacks, or assembly of moments fit with their use as a tool for care?


│   mine────►factory────►open-source    ────►marketplace─┐
│                        cloned assembly                 │
│                                                        │
│                                                        │
│                        internet   ◄────────shipping◄───┘
│                        interfacing

It is a low-energy board (but this is only true at certain scales or comparisons). The deep sleep energy saving that offsets the production/assembly/shipment of many boards is obviously going to be radically different to the hobbyist and the few boards they encounter.

It feels like an act of skimming - displacing a few grains from the mound.

There is an assumed traceability in the open principles. This introduces vagueness and confusion. The lone hobbyist is at a disadvantage for understanding and authenticating the production.

wemos-schematic

┌─                                   shipping
│
│                                                ali-express
│
│                             digi-key
│                             taobao                   │arduino
│                                  ┌─────►lolin◄───────┘
│                                  │      ▲ │
│                                  │ ┌───►┘ │
│                         espressif│ │      └───►pcb
│                             ▲      │         |
│                       ┌─────┘      │        ┌───┐
│                       │            │        │   └─►clone────►ebay  ─────┐
│                   processor        │        │                amazon     │
│ mines                 ▲            │  ┌►seller                          │
│                  ┌────┘            │  │                                 │
│           cadence│                 │  │                                 │
│                                    │  │                                 │
│                                    │  │                                 │
│                factories       │other components                        │
│                                │                                        │
│                                ▼                                        │
│                          drivers│                                       │
│                                 └──────────────────►hobbyist◄───────────┘
│                                                      │
│                                                      └►programming
│                                                         │
└─                                          networking◄───┘
      
Fig.1 Specified players

│                      chip design
│                             ▼
│        materials        chip licence
│           │                    ▼
│           │            hardware company────►product manufacturer
│           ▼                ▲       │                      │
│        manufacturing◄─┐◄───┘       ▼                      ▼
│                       │            hobby suppliers       consumer
│                       ▼                │
│                      clone orgs────────┤
│                          ▲             │
│                          │             ▼
│                          ├───────►hobbyist
│                          │          │
│         software libraries◄─────────┘
Fig.2 Required/Identified relations
^

Microchips

^

Espressif

The Company's main products are Wi-Fi MCU chips and modules, including ESP8089, ESP8266, ESP32 series chips and modules. The Company's main product Wi-Fi MCU is the core communication chip for Internet of Things in smart homes, smart lighting, smart payment terminals, smart wearable, sensing devices and industrial controls.

This trail will focus on the ESP8266 module. ⁠ (Footnote: Wikipedia List of WiFi microcontrollers )

Of the several listed manufacturers of Wifi microcontrollers, most use ARM based processors. Espressif is unique in using US-based Cadence Tensilica Xtensa:

...is used both as a digital signal processor and control processor with a real-time operating system (RTOS) that runs Espressif's WiFi and TCP/IP stacks and other application software.

Espressif assemble this as a module.

These modules are designed for industry and commercial use. Customers are expected to order in bulk. Outlets for smaller quantities are provided, listed as sample suppliers.

Digi-Key (a minimum order with digi-key is 650 units (unit price £2.05 order £1,337), Taobao, Amazon.

Datasheets, schematics and diagrams collect around each listing. The thing (at this stage) has to reveal itself. It isn't the encased product it is open to becoming.

  • ESP8266-HD.jpg
  • The reason for the popularity of many of these boards over the earlier ESP-xx modules is the inclusion of an on-board USB-to-UART bridge (like the Silicon Labs' CP2102 or the WCH CH340G) and a Micro-USB connector, coupled with a 3.3-volt regulator to provide both power to the board and connectivity to the host (software development) computer – commonly referred to as the console, making it an easy development platform. With earlier ESP-xx modules, these two items (the USB-to-serial adapter and the regulator) had to be purchased separately and be wired into the ESP-xx circuit. Modern ESP8266 boards like the NodeMCU are easier to work with and offer more GPIO pins. Most of the boards listed here are based on the ESP-12E module, but new modules are being introduced seemingly every few months.

    These modules often list the vendor on their surface. On the boards I am using the VENDOR line is printed but there is then a space where the vendor could be. It could be that these are produced by AI-Thinker. This appears to be a commonly available module for these boards - specifically the ESP-12F module.

    The successor to the ESP8266, the ESP32 is cited in Wikipedia as manufactured by TSMC ⁠ (Footnote: Wikipedia ESP32 page ) (the world's largest semiconductor company). However this appears to link to a purged page. Given the churn of chip manufactures ⁠ (Footnote: "According to an estimate from People’s Daily, the period between January and October of last year saw the birth of more than 58,000 chip companies — roughly 200 a day." - Morozov, Chips with everything ) as well as the less advanced specifications of the ESP8266, it seems sensible to imagine it is a manufacturer(s) close to Espressif.

    This circular process of chip design, licencing and manufacture is detailed by Morozov here; Chips With Everything . Purchasing these modules interrupts this system.

    Narrative around the sourcing of the elements, the conditions of the mines is detailed in Anatomy of an AI; Anatomy of an AI

    Extra-Sensory-Perception

    We believe in the democratization of technology that will develop tomorrow's AIoT society.

    It might be useful to dig in to what is meant here by Artificial Intelligence/Internet of Things. ⁠ (Footnote: "the Privacy Center will stop using the terms “artificial intelligence,” “AI,” and “machine learning” in our work to expose and mitigate the harms of digital technologies in the lives of individuals and communities " - Emily Tucker, Artifice and Intelligence )

    IoT is comparitively specific in scope. This is in fact evidenced by the need for its development into AIoT.

    ^

    Wemos

    LOLIN WeMos D1

    'Official Store'

    This is a design for assembling the ESP8266 module with some other components that allow it to be used as a development board. ⁠ (Footnote: Wikipedia Development Board )

    The seller credentials on Aliexpress link Wemos to this address;

    Quanzhou Weimosi Electronic Technology Co.
    The Strait of Cizao Town, Jinjiang city, quanzhao city, fujian,
    no 05-06 building 18, strait international city
    (Footnote: Aliexpress seller credentials )

    The presence of WeMos, within English-typed internet is hard to trace. Speculation and random spec documents appear in Reddit and Arduino Forum threads. Some posters appear to recall a possible employee posting some documents when the boards were first developed.

    The WeMos D1 min PRO is a miniature wireless 802.11 (Wifi) microcontroller development board. It turns the very popular ESP8266 wireless microcontroller module into a fully fledged development board. Programming the D1 mini pro is as simple as programming any other Arduino based microcontroller as the module includes a built in microUSB interface allowing the module to be programmed directly from the Arduino IDE (requires the ESP8266 support to be added via board manager) with no additional hardware.

    The demand for these boards is enough that there is a cottage-industry of clone boards. This is permissable within the open source structure of the supply chain at this point. Anyone can buy these components and assemble them together. Into this process creep irregularities and surprises. ⁠ (Footnote: ~Bbqkees documentation of differences between cloned boards. )

    The boards are sometimes listed as OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). This acronym usually designates products that are sold without branding and intended to be assembled as part of a product. The purchaser of the board (the hobbyist) is the manufacturer.

    Slight changes might be made due to the availability of a certain component or perhaps a desire to expand margins. The board seller is the first link that profits immediately from the hobbyist.

    My own experiments are too limited to have surfaced many of these differences. One issue I have encountered is to do with the serial chip component. This is the part that allows the hobbyist to connect to the board using USB. It converts serial data to USB. In order to interact with the board the hobbyist must install a specific driver on their computer. So in my case, my computer as configured by Apple, could communicate with some clones but not all. ⁠ (Footnote: There is a process of troubleshooting when encountering these different component. I go through different USB cables (not all USB cables are made equal). I use the terminal to check if the machine has recognised the board. System Report will often surface details that might have gone unnoticed. In one attempt the System Report reveals the manufacturer of the specific USB serial chip on this board. It belongs to the Future Technology Devices International Limited, a Glasgow based semiconductor firm, with offices in the usual semiconductor hotbeds. A quick search of their site brings up a range of drivers that I can download and install. The first of these resolves the issue. The bigger computer is now talking to the smaller computer. )

    ^

    Connection

    At some point the hobbyist disconnects the board from their machine, connects it to a power source and the program runs. It can attempt to connect to the internet. It might use credentials programmed by the hobbyist to join a nearby router - thereby becoming one of the ~30 billion IoT devices ⁠ (Footnote: ~findstack.com )- and performing some task or system.

    Now things creep in much faster. Bugs in the programming. Faulty wiring or misplaced connections that can lead to fried boards - the quick dark smoke of electrical components burning and the acrid smell. The simplest program is one which commands the single blue led on the board to blink. Within a couple of lines the hobbyist can begin modify and shape the program. Hello World programs.

    And this thing feels distinct and visible. Different to the plethora of sealed devices that many of us spend our time tapping, prodding and swiping.

    Considering this exposes the riskiness of such ventures. This creative practice builds in the excess margins of the open-source industry model. Things are made open to increase adoption and encourage scale.

    The misuse of these boards holds a space for certain actions.

    It can be expected to remain habitable, with difficulty increasing on the part of the hobbyist providing a device that can interact with the board. Solutions to problems posted and answered in forums nearly a decade ago still provide workable solutions.

    Likely the space will have to move though. If it is to remain at this edge of industrial cultural connectivity the hobbyist encampment will have to move.

    The supply of boards and components will dry up and the expense increase.

    This is instructive in what it reveals of the other devices. The mirror (or x-ray) it provides of the architecture of the other things.

    At the point of use it consumes little energy. The boards have various sleep modes that put it into states of hibernation, disabling different processes whilst continuing to count time.

    It is knowable. The interaction can be accounted in ways that more complex computing devices can not - at least with the same immediacy, casual familiarity, non-expert knowledge. It is accessible to scrutiny and consideration.

    As Stiegler stakes out, a process of negentropy, experiencing epochs,

    ...that constitute the world by cultivating it...
    becoming what it is now a matter of thinking (that is of thinking care-fully, panser) with the name 'neganthropy', and through a neganthopology both philosphical and positive.
    — Stiegler, Bernard. 'The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism'

    This is a strategic sense-making. The definition and occupation of space is explored by Lukas Engelhardt who compares a history of digital activist practices with their physical world sibling: squatting.

    wemos-schematic - dithered ee advert 2022, "connect up to 100 devices" (woman surrounded/ surveilled by legion of smart speakers

    The configuration of these boards imposes some limits to the amount of devices that can connect to/through it. In part these limits are defined by the process of connection and identification, in which, each device is assigned a unique IP address. These addresses are strings pulled from a set range.

    In the UK, domestic internet providers generally supply a router which is pre-configured to allow certain behaviours. Downloading speed outstrips upload speed. Setting up port forwarding and the steps required to run a server are hidden within configuration menus.

    ^

    Arduino

    There are two commonly used ways of programming the boards in these conditions: Arduino and NodeMCU. These are both firmware that set up the basic control of the board and dictate the programming that can be understood.

    I've focussed here on Arduino.

    Arduino’s mission is to enable anyone to enhance their lives through accessible electronics and digital technologies. There was once a barrier between the electronics, design, and programming world and the rest of the world. Arduino has broken down that barrier.

    As mentioned above, this is just one of the open-source routes available. The Espressif modules are expressly designed for this and they also offer their own development frameworks and reference their support of "open-source projects in the maker comunity."⁠ (Footnote: ~espressif.com )

    Arduino feels similar in scope to Processing.

    It is quick and relatively easy to take someone through the steps of beginning to program.


    Hello Neighbourhood

    In this section we will work through a hello world example.

    hello neighbourhood ^

    Bibliography

    Libraries [ Care, Communities, Peer-to-peer ]

    Lichen [ Platform Capitalism, Blockchain, Silicon ]

    Limits [ Care, Computation, Breakage ]

    Luddism [ Resistance, Labour, Sabotage, Governance, Zones ]


    ^

    Process

    wemos-schematic wemos-render-top - Depth-rendered image of Wemos D1 Mini clone board on author's hand (topside) wemos-render-under - Depth-rendered image of Wemos D1 Mini clone board on author's hand (underside)
    ^

    Authors

    ~gg (mateus)

    The tilde is used in some systems to denote computing to denote the users home directory. It is also used in URLs to denote a user homepage. ⁠ (Footnote: Tilde>Wikipedia )

    It is easy for this meaning to expand. It's misuse here invites authors to become users and suggests a shared space. This is the practice of tilde servers. These are public access unix systems. Shared servers that communities access remotely. ⁠ (Footnote: tildeverse.org )


    ^

    Footnotes/Links

    The footnote script is borrowed from James R Meyer's Easy Footnotes for Web Pages. This is a lightweight, easy to implement format that focuses on accessibility.

    Footnotes:


    
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    v2

    ~gg 06/22
    

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