"What is the purpose of things? Who said that was the purpose of it?" he asked. "Other people don't have to decide the meaning of things. We can all decide."
It's the same impulse that leads kids to play with a box instead of the toy that came in it.
"I didn't need anything special to hack as a child. I just used whatever was around. I think all children do this," Silver wrote in an e-mail. "I think this is one of the most special and also least unique things about all humans: They try everything every way and have very open minds, especially when young."
At MIT, Silver became part of a group called Lifelong Kindergarten, which seeks to foster creative adults through a "kindergarten style of learning" that emphasizes designing, experimenting and exploring. It was a great fit for him because it taught him to not fear failing, to keep trying different things.
"I'm kind of a bottom-up maker. I don't have a plan. I don't really know how things work that well. I just mess around with stuff, and things start to emerge," he said. "It's kind of like a conversation with materials."
Silver's approach -- part engineer, part artist, part curious 5-year-old -- impressed his mentors at MIT.
"Jay is an incredible creative force. Rarely have I met someone who spins out so many creative ideas. He really has the spirit of a tinkerer, always trying out new things," said Mitchel Resnick, professor of learning research at the MIT Media Lab.
"Jay has held on to that playful curiosity (that children have) and uses that to engage with people," Resnick added. "One thing that's for sure is that Jay will do something that none of us will expect. He'll create new paths that none of us are even thinking about today. And whatever it is, it'll help people explore the world around them and bring joy to their lives."
Today, Silver lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife, Jodi, an artist and early-childhood-creativity educator, and their son, Oak, 2. His job at Intel takes him to festivals and events such as the Bay Area Maker Faire, where he leads creative workshops on such activities as making digital circuits by drawing with a pencil. In return, he takes some of what he learns about prototyping back to Intel Labs, which does research in a variety of futuristic computing fields.
Silver is also still spreading the word about MaKey MaKey. His production company, JoyLabz, has distributed about 20,000 of the kits.
"The reason I'm making this kit is that I'm totally stoked about what I can do with it and what other people can do with it," he said. "I hope that other people use it in a way that makes them feel alive. And if they are, it doesn't matter to me if what they're doing can be called useful or not."
Silver talks wistfully about a utopian future where everyone creates their own unique space instead of settling for cookie-cutter homes or furnishings or decorations.
"We just don't want people running to Walmart when they have a wobbly table," he said. Instead, Silver envisions a new generation of creative thinkers who cut and paste disparate materials to make something new that holds personal meaning for them -- like what artists and writers have been doing for centuries but on a broader scale.
"Take, for example, one of the cornerstones of creative icons: LEGOs. LEGOs let you build anything, right? Well, I am a fan of LEGOs, but there is one thing they are not communicating: The world you live in is a set of LEGOs," he said. "That's my message. You don't need a kit, and you don't need to stick to the pieces that come in the box."
To Silver, such tinkering boosts "creative confidence": the transformative power that comes with making something tangible and fresh.
"If you get some kids thinking 'I can do this' -- especially ones that wouldn't have had a chance to think that way -- that's good enough for me. And we're already seeing it happen," he said.
Silver's workshops are aimed mostly at children, but there's a reason why he's invited to speak at idea-driven conferences like TEDx and PopTech. His lessons are applicable to any hidebound grad student or business executive: Rewrite the rules. Try everything. Don't be afraid to fail.
Follow your joy.
To Silver, it's human nature.