The Hobbyist Renaissance

More than mere consumers of technology, we are makers, adapting technology to our needs and integrating it into our lives.

--Dale Dougherty, publisher of Make magazine

Illustration: dan page

The 1950s were a hobbyist’s paradise, with magazines such as Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics showing the do-it-yourselfer how to soup up a lawn mower with an actual motor and how to build go-karts for the kids. In fact, the term do-it-yourself didn’t enter the language until the early ’50s, and the abbreviation DIY soon followed.

Fifty years later, we’re now firmly entrenched in what some people are calling the age of tech DIY, in which geeks of all persuasions and both sexes engage in various forms of digital tinkering and hardware hacking. The personification of this hobbyist ­renaissance is the maker, a high-tech tinkerer who lives to take things apart, modify (or mod, in the maker vernacular) them to perform some useful or interesting task, and then (sometimes) put them back together. The term maker comes from Make: Technology on Your Time magazine, a wildly successful venture published quarterly by O’Reilly Media. Its motto is ”Build, craft, hack, play, Make,” and each issue is crammed with digital DIY projects for beginners, expert ­makers, and even extreme makers, the true wizards in this world. (In perhaps the ultimate geek mind-meld, IEEE Spectrum and Make have announced a joint venture, the Spectrum/Make DIY Contest, to ”call attention to the coolest and cleverest do-it-yourself projects.”)

Gadget hackers love to open things. Make’s online store sells the warranty voider, a kind of geek Swiss Army knife able to open any case (and thereby void your warranty). True makers say that ”if you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” and the Maker’s Bill of Rights asserts that ”cases shall be easy to open.”

Clever gadget hacking is also called MacGyvering. This comes from the old TV show ”MacGyver,” whose eponymous secret agent used science, everyday items, and usually a certain amount of duct tape to improvise an escape from a precarious situation. Today’s gadgeteers rarely use their skills to cheat death. Instead, they figure out practical hacks, such as replacing an MP3 player’s battery and putting a quieter fan in a PC. Other crafters take a more whimsical approach and transform, say, an old VCR into an automatic cat feeder.

A counterculture aesthetic often prevails in such circles, so you see ”not exactly legal” hacks, such as building a device that jams nearby cellphone signals and the un-DRM-ing of digi­tal players. (DRM, short for digital rights management, refers to any technology that enables copyright holders to control how their digital works are used by consumers.) On a more positive note, instead of sit-ins, some makers hold build-ins, where a gaggle of geeks gathers to construct complex contraptions for a good cause.

Curiosity and wonder lead makers to try things without knowing what the results will be, a process called YDKEWYGUYGI (you don’t know exactly what you get until you get it; it’s the hacker version of WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get). Rael Dornfest, former CTO of O’Reilly Media, talks of the new remix culture, whereby people mix the seemingly unmixable and end up with, say, Linux running on an iPod or a houseplant that sends you a voice-mail message when it needs to be watered.

Lots of modern-day hardware hackers are also would-be roboticists, and they’re flocking to the programmable Lego Mindstorms NXT brick, cooking up all kinds of ingenious gadgetry. Other favorite robots include iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner and Scooba floor washer, because you can connect them to a PC and program them to move in any direction, and you can read their sensors, add cameras, and more. There’s even a new sport called Roomba fighting, in which two hacked Roombas square off against each other. In January, iRobot announced iRobot Create—essentially the Scooba without the brushes and fluid tanks—which it designed for pure robotics fun.

Some citizen engineers start businesses based on their gizmos, while others are makers-for-hire. However, the vast majority of the DIY widgets fall under the new category of open-source ­hardware. The recipes and constructopedias that explain how to create them are shared with anyone who wants them. That brings in more DIYers, and the hobbyist renaissance grows even bigger. Prepare, then, to meet your makers.

About the Author

PAUL MCFEDRIES is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases (http://www.wordspy.com).

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