A couple of months ago I received an email from Kim Sykes, an architect and early friend of ‘the improvised life’. She wrote:

“We are hearing a lot about I.E.Ds in the news from Iraq and Afghanistan. I.E.Ds are Improvised Explosive Devices. Every time I hear the word “improvised” I think of your blog so when I heard this, I wondered how you might discuss negative improvisation and how everything we make no matter how innovative or creative can have an effect, positive hopefully, but also negative.”

Kim’s words are a startling reminder of the negative forms of creativity we all encounter daily, from Bernard Madoff’s ponzi scheme to computer viruses to mortgage-backed securities. I.E.D’s are a breathtakingly heinous form, one that easily becomes an abstraction. We humans have been devising ways to destroy each other forever. Wikipedia lists eleven pages of variations on the I.E.D theme, including sophisticated devices that have been constructed with the most innocuous items, like scavenged washing machine timers, mobile phones, and garage door openers. Its citations go back to 1000 AD, where monkeys and pigs were used as incendiaries in China.

As I was thinking about Kim’s email, I came across this strange, powerful image of an “Improvised Empathic Device” nestled, like some subversive force, among the listings on the first google page about I.E.Ds. It is a project of SWAMP (Studies in Work Atmospheres and Mass Production), whose mandate is “to find creative expression within elements of culture that are inherently counter-creative.”  Their Improvised Empathic Device is meant to make us make us understand, viscerally and emotionally, the reality of the human loss in war:

“SWAMP’s I.E.D. project aims to give substantial and physical awareness to the death and violence occurring in the Middle East, by creating direct physical pain from the reported events of killed American soldiers, whose details are not found to be as newsworthy by the media.

A custom software application continuously monitors a website ( that updates the personal details and numbers of slain U.S. soldiers. When new deaths are updated on the website, the data is extracted and sent wirelessly to custom hardware installed on the I.E.D. armband. The LCD readout displays the soldiers’ name, rank, cause of death and location and then triggers an electric solenoid to drive a needle into the wearers arm, drawing blood and immediate attention to the reality that a soldier has just died in the Iraq war.”

Fierce stuff.

I find that the very name Improvised Empathic Device is in itself a powerful idea. Are there tools we can each devise that will help us to be more empathic,  and disarm our fears and negative views so that we can create for the good.

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

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2 replies on “fierce stuff: improvised empathic device (I.E.D)

  1. I was once in a roomful of hundreds of strangers. Someone was giving a talk.

    She said, “Think of the worst moment you’ve ever had in your life, the worst thing that has ever happened to you.” I did so, and felt bad all over again.

    “Now,” she said, “consider this. It is reasonable to assume that everyone in this room has had a similar experience.”

    Suddenly, I was filled with compassion. I looked at my neighbor with new, old eyes.

  2. Wow, Sally. This is really great, and wonderful that you rose to this difficult but important challenge, expanding the reach of your subject into human nature and spirit. I found this really thought provoking, with a huge, gentle but inexorable emotional impact.

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