December 3, 2020

Tinkering with personal media

Did everyone here catch the Editorial Observer item in Sunday’s New York Times?: A New Magazine’s Rebellious Credo: Void the Warranty! The article recounted the launch of Make Magazine, a throwback quarterly that celebrates the almost-forgotten idea of the creative impulse inside us all.

Make, its makers will tell you, is part of a grass-roots rebellion against consumer technology that they say stifles ingenuity by discouraging end-user modification. To these restless minds, increasingly sophisticated consumer products have forced users into a kind of stupefied passivity, with nothing to do but replace batteries and update software, to point and click into a zone of blissed-out consumption. … In this world, to tinker – to open the case, to fiddle with wires and see what happens – is to rebel.

My thought, after reading the article, was: Yes! The freedom to tinker! It’s no longer a concept confined to a narrow set of technologists, geeks and academics. O’Reilly is a tech publishing house, sure, but surely this periodical has tapped into a nascent impulse among some segment of Americans to throw off the shackles of consumerism and to hark back to a time when we were co-creators of our products.

I remember watching my dad tool around with short-band radio and spend weekends under the hood of his car. What tinkering skill sets will I pass along to my 6-year-old? At the moment, the best I have to offer is, alas, a set of tools in the Darknet that I can point him to, given the widening disconnect between our laws and the kinds of things people want to do with digital technology.

But perhaps we can think of tinkering in a larger context: as a reformulation of our media culture. In that sense, creating a work of personal media (and perhaps showing it off on one’s blog or a site like Ourmedia) is an affirmative action that looms larger than it may at first seem. Clinton talks (in the comments below) about a media revolution that’s about honesty and substance, and that taps into a sentiment I bring up often in my talks about personal media: the genuineness and authenticity that we’re seeking to connect with and that’s missing from the realm of commercial-driven mass media. Even the failings can hold meaning because they’re true and genuine. I’m not all that concerned with figuring out a business model for the big boys to replace the current regime; someone will do that, whether it involves advertising, subscription or some new model we haven’t thought of yet. What we should be concerned about is breaking the stranglehold that the major media outlets (500 channels and nothing on) have on our living rooms. I do believe that when a wealth of Internet programming comes gushing through our TV sets, American culture will change – for the better.

We’ll be a more fragmented society, yes, but we’ll also see more and more young people picking up the tools of digital creativity. And becoming tinkerers.