The week of September 7, 2014

DIY or die

By Austin Powell

My mom has somehow become the biggest hipster I know—and it’s awesome.

She mills her own flour, cans everything she can get her hands on, and has been adding personal flair to her wardrobe since long before the days of Pinterest. Lately she’s developed an interest in microbreweries. She’s even thinking about getting chickens. Going home now reminds me of that Portlandia sketch about the dream of the ‘90s… the 1890s.

It’s been an incredible transformation to watch unfold—from a no-nonsense, advertising executive to a crafty gardener always looking for her next project—and I see it as part of a much larger cultural shift. We seem to be slowing down and taking matters into our own hands, as a matter of pride and personal preference. The Internet, as Marianne Kirby argues, has not only shown us what’s possible, it’s done so in a way that’s astonishingly specific to our particular interests and allows us to become experts in the process.

Whereas just a few years ago, canning seemed like a fringe affair, reserved for the thriftiest among us, now Mason jars are flying off the shelves.

“The barrier to participation has been significantly lowered,” notes Mike Warren, the editor and community manager at the DIY publication Instructables. “Anyone can have a YouTube channel or social media account and share. This presence allows information to travel much faster and more freely than before, bridging the gap between a static audience member and an active participant.”

In short, DIY has officially gone mainstream.

In this week’s issue of The Kernel, we take a closer at how that came to be, and what it means moving forward. Simon Owens traces the rise of maker culture, from DIY publication to the dominance of YouTube tutorial, while Leslie Anne Jones examines the role of handmade marketplace Etsy, which has allowed independent artisans to pursue their crafts full time, and the larger shift toward large-scale production and curation.

Of course, as with anything that experiences widespread adoption (see last month’s fantasy football issue), DIY culture has also been pushed to new extremes. I mean, you can actually 3D-print your own 3D printer now, and as Mike Wehner illustrates here, you can build your version of Google’s virtual reality headset with little more than cardboard and an Android phone. What’s more, it actually looks pretty incredible.

Moreover, our cover story by Marissa Fessenden explores the world of so-called brain hacking, where individuals, in attempt to approve their cognitive abilities or treat symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder, basically hook up a 9-volt battery their skulls, based on instructions found online. It’s called  transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, and at least anecdotally, it’s showing signs of success.

Like some of DIY version of Darwin’s law, for every successful lifehack, there’s a Pinterest fail, and some, as Chris Ostendorf candidly illustrates, have grown tired of the whole push to do everything oneself.

But even there’s no doubting the profound effect that the Internet and DIY culture has had. Whether you’re looking for make-up tips, a new pumpkin pie recipe, or to tie the perfect tie, there’s always a tutorial video or set of online instructions right there at your fingertips, whenever you need it most. And for those who have spent the last two decades wondering where’s your hovercraft, well, it’s right here.

Now go build your own—before my mom beats you to it.

Photo by PhotoAtelier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)