Make Yourself Useful

Dust off your tools, make space in the garage, clear a launch pad in the backyard it’s all about making stuff this summer and it’s not just the boys either. With the DIY zeitgeist gathering serious mainstream press and online attention, the maker faire movement and tinkering camps popping up all over the place, it looks like bruised thumbs and scorched floor tiles are set to make a major comeback. The DIY spirit has its roots in the 1970s oil crisis when householders everywhere started fitting shelves and making beer in the basement for themselves. That lead to a massive boom in DIY retail - the power tool surge if you like - with no self respecting household without enough drilling torque to damage the load-bearing walls. The success of IKEA totally depends on the willingness of the customer to assemble the flat pack.

What’s happening now is that a new generation of DIYers is applying the hacker ethos to the toolshed. Hacking is all about assuming control of the means of production. It can be done from the student dorm to the kitchen table and has always been very much a highly networked, learning-by-doing type of activity. The new makers are often referred to (wrongly I feel) as tech DIYers because they’re all about microprocessors and often combine culture jamming with physical interactives. This means stuff like bio sensors and home made robots. DIY has always involved discovering current technology though and thinking about how materials interact. Look at the evolution of the humble rawl plug, from wooden dowel to super durable, colour coded, injection moulded fetish object.

The maker/tinker/techDIYer movement is part of a much wider global cultural trend, reflecting a fundamental shift in responsibility towards the consumer (or ‘user’ as we’re called in the digital world). We’re asked to take control of our own employment, healthcare and retirement  among many other things. While frightening for many as the old assumptions of statism are trashed by global economics, it does present some unprecedented opportunities. Add to that the dominance of science as the most powerful cultural force since the enlightenment and this proliferation of home made innovation looks like being a wave of democratised energy.

Scientific enquiry is very belatedly waking up the power of the crowd and while things like the famous Great Egg Race of 1970s Britain drew viewing figures in the millions, in a distributed media universe things like the Great Global Hackerspace Challenge are facilitating homegrown endeavour. The wide availability of cheap technology shows no sign of slowing down either. It remains to be seen whether the maker ethos can be exported to where it’s needed most; the developing world, but I see no reason why not. It offers an empowering entrance through creativity to science, computers and engineering. I can see someone designing a real toolkit for a 11 year old schoolgirl complete with soldering iron and hacksaw. In fact if you really want to see such a thing in action live and direct come to TEDxkids@brussels on the 1st June when we’ll be putting these ideas to the test – live - with a bunch of primary school kids.

John Fass