The Austin Chronicle

It's Do or DIY

Whether quiet protest or paradigm shift, the handmade crowd has plenty to say

By Brandon Watson, February 28, 2014, Screens

The cultural obsession with all things knitted, pickled, hand-stitched, and potato­-stamped has now been around long enough to become joke fodder. Portlandia reworked its "The Dream Is Alive" sketch for a generation turning back the clock to the 1890s. April Winchell made it a cottage industry in her now­-defunct Regretsy blog. The pop culture mockery is telling. Do-it-yourself is no longer a fad; it's a national fixation.

So it should not be surprising that several panels at the touchscreen­-devoted SXSW Interactive Conference are dedicated to the idea of getting more hands-on. But it does provide a snapshot of how comfortably handmade now fits with tech. What constitutes the "yourself" part of DIY is expanding. Increasingly inexpensive 3-D printers allow home users to manufacture gewgaws with no trace of homespun texture. "Printables," fair use templates for cards, labels, and decor, have become a favorite craft. Handmade today could just as easily mean using a laser-cutter as a crochet needle.

The definition of "yourself" is expanding in other ways, too. If not always a solitary activity, DIY has always been intimate – slow work done at family gatherings or quilting bees. But all of the panels use language suggesting a larger community. It's a "movement," even a "democracy." If the current form of DIY started as a form of quiet protest, it's now found a way to influence the larger culture.

One panel, "How the DIY Movement Is Reinventing America," evokes revolution. Looking at GE, Apple, and Motorola's tentative return to U.S. manufacturing, VentureBeat Editor-in-Chief Dylan Tweney sees a new American willingness to "get our hands dirty." In the video introduction to his panel, he sees connections between the way America participates in hobbies and how it creates work. Tweney's panel seeks to answer if maker fervor can shift the job landscape, considering if vocational education and entrepreneurial fellowships can lift the U.S. out of economic malaise.

Another panel, "Maker Culture & Digital Marketing," suggests that DIY has already shifted the economy. It's in the way that consumers can interact with brands, sharing a virtual, personalized Coke or mapping a theoretical route for the Nissan Rogue. In this way, brands can target a specific demographic or take advantage of social media chatter, like with the much-shared rainbow-striped cookie and Super Bowl "You can still dunk in the dark" memes from Oreo. It's even in the way Kickstarter campaigns are now just as likely to fund products as culture. Recently, the 3Doodler raised more than $2 million toward its goal of creating a 3-D printing pen. If consumerism is increasingly personalized, where is the room for traditional, broad­-appeal brands?

The burgeoning business of TechShop should have those in the traditional economy worried. Its seven (and counting) locations give anyone who can afford the monthly fee access to equipment once well out of public reach. Each location is packed with tools ranging from powder-coating guns to industrial sergers. Much of what consumers can buy at big-box stores can be approximated in their studios, but without "one size fits all" specifications.

TechShop CEO Mark Hatch's panel, "Maker Democracy Spurs Innovation," suggests that the maker spirit can drive American entrepreneurship. And it's another indicator of how far the contemporary DIY ethos has veered from its hippie and punk roots. Modern makers dream big – not so much seeking an anarchic destruction of the American corporate culture as the creation of a whole new paradigm.

That's not to say that the new paradigm doesn't have room for artisanal furniture, recycled fiber scarves, and the rest of the traditional domain of DIY. Even the most accidental example of wabi-­sabi is now finding an audience through algorithms. Etsy is of course the largest of the online marketplaces, but its imitators – Ravelry and BurdaStyle – have attracted large user bases, too. They have also attracted raiders. Urban Outfitters in particular has been accused of stealing everything from punk rock sock monkeys to state-shaped pendants from crafters. "Navigating the New Handmade Economy" seeks to educate small-scale producers on the thornier issues of DIY culture and how to use networking to their advantage.

There's no doubt that jokes will still be cracked. DIY culture still has one foot stuck in the retro and twee. But the movement is also on the leading edge of what can be done with technology. Innovation always seems a little silly until it gets the last laugh.

Related Events

How the DIY Movement Is Reinventing America
Saturday, March 8, 3:30pm&
Omni Downtown Longhorn

Maker Democracy Spurs Innovation
Saturday, March 8, 3:30pm
Hilton Austin Downtown Salon H

Navigating the New Handmade Economy
Sunday, March 9, 11am
Omni Downtown Lone Star

Maker Culture & Digital Marketing
Monday, March 10, 11am&
Omni Downtown Longhorn

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