Science/Tech

Computer Class as Soulcraft

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The Wall Street Journal has a fun, inspiring piece about technological tinkering:

Occupying a space somewhere between shop class and the computer lab, the new tinkerers are making everything from devices that Twitter how much beer is left in a keg to robots that assist doctors. The experimentation is even creating companies. With innovation a prime factor in driving economic growth, and corporate research and development spending tepid, the marriage of brains and brawn offers one hopeful glimmer.

Engineering schools across the country report students are showing an enthusiasm for hands-on work that hasn't been seen in years. Workshops for people to share tools and ideas -- called "hackerspaces" -- are popping up all over the country; there are 124 hackerspaces in the U.S., according to a member-run group that keeps track, up from a handful at the start of last year. SparkFun Electronics Inc., which sells electronic parts to tinkerers, expects sales of about $10 million this year, up from $6 million in 2008. "Make" magazine, with articles on building items such as solar hot tubs and autopilots for robots, has grown from 22,000 subscribers in 2005 to more than 100,000 now. Its annual "Maker Faire" in San Mateo, Calif., attracted 75,000 people this year.

"We've had this merging of DIY [do it yourself] with technology," says Bre Pettis, co-founder of NYC Resistor, one of the first hackerspaces, in Brooklyn. "I'm calling it Industrial Revolution 2."

First reaction: I'm really glad he didn't call it Industrial Revolution 2.0.

Second reaction: The paper prefers to stress the influence of the economic crisis, but if there's a surge in mechanical hacking right now, it's at least partly an outgrowth of the hacking subculture that gave us tools like the original Napster. The tinkering described in the Journal story doesn't just occupy a space between shop class and the computer lab; it represents the two rooms influencing each other.

Elsewhere in Reason: Katherine Mangu-Ward talked to the founder of Make for a Reason story earlier this year. Brian Doherty profiled the DIY energy movement last year. And back in 2000, I looked at a world where "we've let the tinkers back in."