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Blog // Thoughts
June 1, 2005

DIY, Fabrication and Emergent Engineering

I have to admit that I was sucked into the whole 90s D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) thing. Sure it was a clever ruse to turn boring hosuehold repair products into colourful lifestyle brands and sure it a self-aggrandising way to turn otherwise boring stories about routine home maintence into enthralling tales about domestic bravery and bold aesthetic […]

I have to admit that I was sucked into the whole 90s D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) thing. Sure it was a clever ruse to turn boring hosuehold repair products into colourful lifestyle brands and sure it a self-aggrandising way to turn otherwise boring stories about routine home maintence into enthralling tales about domestic bravery and bold aesthetic judgement. For a while it was like the whole cultural zeitgeist was aligned with those who had to go through the common ritual of a generation learning precisely those manual skills that a middle class education (and upbringing) had been designed to hide from them. With this came not just a sense of satisfaction with one’s creativity, but also the realisation of how much of the minuatae of domestic design was unecessarily regulated and normalised.

Over the past 5-6 years, however, this DIY ethos has grown and evolved as more and more people take tools to hand and try to bring ideas to life that are not restricted to the domestic realm. In the musical instrument world, for example, effects makers like Zachary Vex have subverted what was a big-business dominated market with radical designed (hand painted by artist Jason Myrold. Makers like Vex have inspired a generation of DIYers to turn a hobby into a cottage industry. Looking at an online store like Tonefactor shows us the extent to which DIY has become boutique. The same is happening, not just across other areas of music manufacture (even guitar picks) but also in hi-fi, sports equipment and of course, new media. The emergent class of self-sufficient artisans seem to share a common skeptism of the way big-business both manages and limits access to production. It suggests we need a new way to speak that goes beyond talk of consumers (or prosumers) and producers.

Neil Gershenfeld is someone who wants to push our thiking on this forward and to ponder the potential for this drive in the face of new technology. He is director of the MIT Centre for Bits and Atoms and author of Fabrication. His idea is to harnass the power of computers to make almost anything, on a small-scale. This subverts the distance between DIY and major scale production. So, imagine yourself with not just an iMac and an iPod, but also an iCNC, an iLaser-Cutter and in fact a whole iLab to make, well anything you can render on your computer.

In this interview Gershenfeld likens this transition in manufacture to the transition from mainframe computers to PCs. After teaching a wildy sucessfull MIT course called “How To Make (almost) Anything,” he gained an insight into what drove his students attempts at personal fabrication.

“These student were not inventing for the sake of their survival, or developing products for a company; they were expressing themselves technologically. They were creating the things they desired, rather than needed, to make the kind of world they wanted to live in.”

It soon dawned on Gershenfeld that for around $US10,000 one could build a desktop fabrication lab complete with computer, microcontrollers, milling machines and so on. It soon became apparent that the potential for what he calls emergent engineering was there not just for rich kids to express themselves creatively, but for the world’s poor to manufcature with minimal outlay. Fabrication labs are already in place to help produce agriculture related products that will improve the lives of poor folk, but would have been demeed commercially unviable by normal manufacturing companies.

Responses
Toni 15 years ago

This ties in with a radio article I heard a while back about self-replicating machines and 3 dimensional printers/fabricators. My original post is here. The idea that this could be used to manufacture items in the very near future is an exciting one.

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