The DIY Ethic and Modern Technology: Why taking ownership of your electronics is essential

etharooni/CC BY 2.0

Do It Yourself.

The fact that we have a growing trend encouraging people to accomplish tasks or build things on their own is telling about how far we've strayed from self-sufficiency, from the desire and the ability to be our own Jack/Jane-of-All-Trades. This is especially true when it comes to electronics, to technologies that have advanced so far so quickly that they feel entirely foreign and essentially untouchable to the vast majority of gadget users.

When it comes to fixing, building, hacking and modifying electronic devices and systems to our own advantage, we may have strayed; but a growing community of gadgeteers is helping to bring back not only the notion that we can indeed do our own thing but that we should -- that it is part of a sustainable future to take back our electronics through DIYism; that "if you can't open it, you don't own it"; and that the satisfaction of DIYing something is so very worth the effort that goes into the project.

Building the DIY Ethic

So what is the DIY ethic? In many ways DIY has been cornered by Martha Stewart-style craftiness from the kitchen to the closet -- making one's own yogurt or bread, which we've grown to rely on getting from grocery stores, or making one's own cute cocktail dress instead of buying it from a chain department store. But the DIY ethic goes far beyond clothes or crafts or cooking, beyond homesteading or hacking gadgets, far beyond weekend warrior projects around the home. It goes straight into a cultural and even a psychological framework.

The DIY Ethic centers around two major ideals: self-reliance and making something to your own exacting specifications, neither of which can be easily found outside of DIY living.

Consider the intro in the Wikipedia entry for DIY Ethic (Wikipedia also being at its core a DIY project for the masses):

The DIY ethic refers to the ethic of self-sufficiency through completing tasks oneself, as opposed to having others who are more experienced or able complete them on one's behalf. Literally meaning "do it yourself," it promotes the idea that an ordinary person can learn to do more than just what he or she may have thought was possible. Naturally, a DIY attitude requires that the adherent attain as well as retain the knowledge required to complete a given task. Without this, DIY is an ineffective dogma. The term can refer to "doing" anything at all, including home improvement, first aid or creative works.

Central to the ethic is the empowerment of individuals and communities, encouraging the employment of alternative approaches when faced with bureaucratic or societal obstacles to achieving their objectives.

Rather than belittling or showing disdain for knowledge or expertise, DIY champions the average individual seeking knowledge and expertise for him/herself. Instead of using the services of others who have expertise, a DIY-oriented person would seek out the knowledge for him/herself.

glacial23/CC BY-SA 2.0

Saving Money, Bolstering Pride

Most of the DIY projects I've done in my life have been because I was too broke to do it any other way. While saving money was a bonus, the sheer amount of pride and self-confidence that came with the end result was the real prize. This was true for everything from the first sweater I knit to the first sprinkler system I installed, from the first batch of bread I ever baked to the first deck I built. I remember what I've made and modified by hand because each time I completed a project there was a little gasp of surprise and excitement that I actually pulled it off.

Now translate that to electronics, something most of us are taught should not be messed with except by a professional. Manufacturers do a wonderful job of scaring off potential DIYers with large "will void warranty" warning (and admittedly rightfully so), plenty of screws locking things down, a lack of clear instruction manuals and gut guides to the components. The Maker motto of "If you can't open it, you don't own it" rings incredibly true for electronics. The laptop you think you own isn't really yours, but rather something you're essentially borrowing (for a lot of money!) from the manufacturer unless you're willing to pop open that back panel and look inside when something needs to be fixed, changed or rearranged.

Our gadgets remain cordoned off to us if we remain afraid to open them and see what they're made of, if we're afraid to repair them when they've broke, hack them when we need more customization, or better yet, build gadgets from scratch based on the ideas in our heads.

This DIY mentality is what leads to incredibly cool and useful projects -- like Tweet-A-Watt, for example -- and that encourages people to take ideas started by one person and run with them to create the next cool device, software program, robot, and so on.

The Prevalence of Electronics In Our Culture

Is it even necessary to go in to how prevalent electronics are in our world? Take a look around you right now and count the number of items that require electricity to work. Now extend that tally to the items in your entire home. Now extend it to the number of electronics you encounter on a daily basis at work, while shopping, or during your daily commute.

That number is in the hundreds if not thousands.

Now tally how many of these you've opened up, modified, hacked, fixed, or built from scratch. Unless you're a Maker, you probably can count them on one hand. Maybe you've updated the battery in your laptop, or set up your wireless Internet in your home, or maybe even repaired a busted component of your cell phone. Maybe you've even built a robot from a kit. But in general, not many of us really dive into DIYing things with electronics, even though they're everywhere and we use them every day.

But that may not be the norm for long.

Perhaps the largest single event centering around DIY culture is Maker Faire, and the biggest component of Maker Faire is electronics -- what one can build, hack, modify and make work using metals, gears, electronic components, and some electricity. Why is the Maker Faire event such a draw and growing, and why is it that gadgets have the largest presence? Because the DIY culture and gadgets go together like peanut butter and jelly.

kjackman/CC BY-SA 2.0

DIY Electronics for a Sustainable Future

This small but intriguing trend toward getting comfortable with working on electronics is an important one not only for our self-confidence and joy, but for the planet as a whole. Relying on ourselves to come up with gadgets we need and want to use in daily life, fixing the devices that break, and knowing how and when to repurpose components to make something new are all part of relieving ourselves from the pressures and costs of consumerism. We are avoiding the environmental footprint of constant upgrades and piles of outdated devices, we're participating in the recycling stream by finding value in and reusing old parts, and we're contributing to the creativity of our future world.

People DIYing gadgets is also the solution to so many environmental questions. For example, conservationists who DIYed their own cheap drone to monitor deforestation. That is just amazing! The ways that the DIY ethic can help the environment when applied to technology are practically limitless, and the more people answer the call to build/fix/hack/modify/create it themselves, the more the face of our culture will change. To underscore this, here is a fascinating talk from 2009 by David Pescovitz, Co-editor of BoingBoing.net and Research Director at Institute for the Future.


From the YouTube page:
"Two future forces, one mostly social, one mostly technological, are intersecting to transform how goods, services, and experiences—the stuff of our world—will be designed, manufactured, and distributed over the next decade. An emerging do-it-yourself culture of makers is boldly voiding warranties to tweak, hack, and customize the products they buy. And what they cant purchase, they build from scratch. Meanwhile, flexible manufacturing technologies on the horizon will change fabrication from massive and centralized to lightweight and ad hoc. These trends sit atop a platform of grassroots economics—new market structures developing online that embody a shift from stores and sales to communities and connections. "

I encourage you to check out the talk, and follow along with our month-long spotlight of DIY!

Tags: Do It Yourself | Electronics | Gadgets | longreads

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