Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

Tinker Thinkers

When digital culture awakens DIY culture (and vice versa)

Do-It-Yourself culture is nothing if not counterintuitive. The more cheap ready-made crapola there is to purchase in the world, the more DIYers get interested in creating things for themselves. On the surface, this trend would appear to be the instinctive recoil of a people so inundated with purchasables that sorting the wheat from the chaff has become impossible—but I think there’s more to it than that.

DIYers are a strange breed, with a strange pedigree. Modern DIY shares genetic material with the Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteen-hundreds, Bob Vila–type home improvement programs, Popular Mechanics geekery, the Whole Earth Catalogue, and the punk scene. The larger concept—making or fixing something by yourself—seems intuitive enough that it shouldn’t really qualify for an acronym. And yet somehow it isn’t. That’s the thing about DIY: it sounds so easy, until you get in there and start trying to Do whatever-It-is Yourself. In fact, you quickly come to understand why the making of things is farmed out to tiny children in a Malaysian sweatshop in the first place. Therein lies both the glory and frustration of DIY: You produce items that are significant to you, whose internal workings you understand and whose very existence is evidence of your hard work. Material objects are made meaningful, but their meaning lies in the difficulty of their fabrication.

Because of the Luddite-ish sentiment inherent in the act of making something by hand, one might expect DIY today to be very analog and crafty. Indeed, crafts are a big part of it: knitting, crochet and needlepoint have experienced a renaissance recently among the cool kids, spawning countless stitch-’n’-bitch circles and knitting blogs. Making one’s own T-shirts, clothing, furniture, handbags, iPod cozies and whatnot has become fashionable among the middle class. There’s even an auction site, etsy.com, devoted exclusively to handmade goods. The handcrafts traditionally associated with older folks are being adopted by a new generation that has reinvigorated them with cheeky kitsch and modern design sensibilities. The relatively robust sales figures for ReadyMade Magazine, a chronicler of these sorts of projects, are evidence of their popularity.

Even beyond the world of what’s traditionally considered DIY territory, though, the idea that amateurs can make things for themselves is a powerful one. Electronics has always been an area where the very able spent time tinkering (think ham radios, early modem set-ups and little light bulbs powered by potatoes). But as technology becomes more and more accessible to the average dude, Dude Average is becoming more and more able to use his technology to create. Blogs and podcasts replace Kinko-ized zines, and programs like iMovie and Garage Band allow non-professionals to produce near-professional-quality work. Even securing distribution, one of the most challenging aspects of truly independent film and music production, can be done for cheap and for easy on the Internet.

Tinkering around with the workings of one’s digital environment—once possible only for the technical elite—is now something even total schlubs like me can take a whack at. Tools like greasemonkey let me change the way I view the Web as easily as putting up a new set of shelves. Higher up the food chain, technical-proficiency-wise, the DIY ethic of rolling up your sleeves, trying to figure out a way to do something and refusing to believe that only corporations with big money can make things of importance is very much alive.

Bridging the gap between analog and digital are crafty geeks like the folks at Make Magazine. These kids are basically game for any project, from hacking one’s circadian rhythms to building blimps to putting together at-home cold fusion labs. In a similar, yet infinitely more useless vein, are the case modders: guys who get off on redesigning the outer casing of their CPUs so that they are shaped like robots or have fish swimming through them or whatever.

There’s a whole heck of a lot of people out there Doing It Themselves. And as counterintuitive as it may seem, DIY and high-tech are only going to get more convergent. Take the futuristic fab lab, for instance. Fabrication laboratories let people create any shape with a CAD-type program, and then just fabricate it. Right there! Poof! You can develop an idea from a thought in your brain to material presence in the space of a few hours. The possibilities, not to be trite, are endless: furniture, appliances, oddly shaped paperweights, poof, poof, poof!

As we begin to reach absolute materialistic saturation, I predict that DIY culture and technology will not only allow people to interact with their stuff in a more meaningful way, but will profoundly change the way we think about the making and discarding of the physical things that surround us. The fact the people want to make things, even when it isn’t necessary, evinces an odd and wonderful quirk in the way our brains are put together. Call it the drive to tinker.

Audrey Ference tries her darndest to keep up with what the kids are into these days. Her column appears every two weeks. Read other recent columns by Audrey Ference.