I have to admit to subscribing to a few magazines – as opposed to journals. The magazines end to get read but not necessarily quickly, and they tend to get sent to the recycle bin immediately after. The journals get read, selectively by article, as quickly as possible, and almost never go to the recycle bin.
One of the magazines is WIRED, largely because they give me a hideously low subscription price and I find it a magazine that I cannot understand more than I do, so it has rather a forbidden fruit aspect. I was reading a back issue yesterday and happened on an articl that I do, at least superficially, understand. The article was Mooallem, Jon, “The Lost Tribes of RadioShack”, WIRED, May 2010, pp. 64-71, and its tenor was the demise of Radio Shack as an electronics parts emporium for the hobyist.
I was particularly taken by the statement,
“Once, we were makers. Now, most of us are users.”
And I have to consider this.
On the surface, I have no disagreement. Some months ago the Greater Metropolitan Arab Friends of the Library opened a second salvage store, this one for books that had been donated to the library. Once you got past the question of why any library would want 57 copies of some decade old bosom ripper, it was a bit of the lees of the foundry at a gold mine, a profitable place to mine nuggets of trace rarities. Among other thing I picked up a dozen back issues of Popular Mechanics from the first half decade of the ’70′s.
My intent was to mine out technology articles but what I found myself entrained about was the blatant (and subtle) indications of changes in our social weltanschaung. One of the chiefest of these was our attitudes toward make-versus-buy. This was the period of crescendo of the great American making thing hobby. This was when Radio Shack was in its glory, and Heath Kit was a social statement as much as an evening diversion. As an example, one spot product announcement was a kit for making anchor bolts for hanging framed pictures on Sheetrock.
Today, the only folks who make their own anchor bolts are those who have no access to a store, or are die hards, but in those days ordinary people made things as either a necessity or as a constructive recreation. The necessity arose from the high cost of being an early adopter. Take color televisions. In those days most televisions were still made by humans and so the cost of human labor, while not as significant as today, did still represent a significant savings. There was also an attitude, somewhat Puritan, that people should not waste their non-working time just watching television, or goofing off, or whatnot. So many of the hobbies had a constructive aspect to them.
But the question I had to ask myself is what has changed? Admittedly our society has changed somewhat but have humans really shifted from being makers to users? Consider that most humans in those thrilling days of yesteryear did not make their own tools. They went to their local hardware store, or Sears Roebuck, to purchase a hammer or a saw. They didn’t fell their own trees usually, unless it was for firewood, they went to a lumber yard and bought sawn lumber. And if they did fell their trees, they took them to a sawmill to be sawn into lumber.
So an alternate hypothesis is not that humans have quit being makers, but that what they make has changed. I had a personal experience that supports this. When I first moved into a house after the campus of the Bone Yard, I went through a spate of woodworking, building bookshelves and a few stray pieces of furniture. This phase lasted about a year. It ceased for several reasons including that I got all the stuff made I needed, but basically I quit because there was nothing more I wanted to build. Besides, I was working on dissertation research and that was definitely making even if it was writing code and generating information. And I never really went back to woodworking after I received the degree. I found other things to make.
So while the fraction of people who are not-makers may have changed, although I have no data to support this one way or the other, the hypothesis that what we now make recreationally has changed seems to have some valid substance. If so, it is not that Radio Shack is being deserted becuase folks don’t make any more, just that they don’t make what Radio Shack can help with.
And all this may be a good indication for the persistence of the species after all.