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Techies are natural DIY’ers

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
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    Robert N. Hart
    Robert N. Hart
Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

When I was a kid in the 1950s and early ’60s, “Do It Yourself” was the battle cry of domesticated weekend warriors. Usually neighborhood newlyweds, they had traded in their Friday night party clothes for Saturday morning coveralls and tool belts. Competing with the summer sounds of honeybees and nattering mockingbirds was the rhythm of hammers and saws in a half dozen backyards.

During the week, these young fixer-uppers stole time to bone up on techniques by scouring the pages of magazines like “Popular Mechanics” and “Mechanix Illustrated,” and by buying the how-to-do-it manuals coming from Sunset Books, Time-Life and Better Homes and Gardens.

In 1968, young visionary Stewart Brand joined the ranks by publishing his first edition of The Whole Earth Catalog. It and subsequent editions of that mainstay spurred great waves of experimentalism, convention-breaking and an even broader do-it-yourself attitude that would ultimately evolve into the marching orders for the coming “back to the land” era.

Still, it would be at least another decade before this notion of building, modifying or repairing something without expert help coalesced into a full-fledged movement among America’s more mainstream 9-to-5’ers. We might trace it to the mid-1970s, as home video came along and video cassette recorders (VCRs) started cropping up under Christmas trees. That is when do-it-yourself instructors found profits in demonstrating processes on the screen.

Then in 1979, DIY anointed its first king. Bob Vila stepped up to begin hosting the PBS television series “This Old House,” teaching a nation of neophytes how to improve their living conditions (and the value of their homes) without the expense of paying someone else to do so much of the work.

In the years to come, the DIY spirit spread merely from home repairs to topics as diverse as knitting, jewelry making, health care and composting. A typical issue of “Mother Earth News,” another child of the ’70s, would have articles on homesteading, hunting, food storage, geodesic domes, medicinal herbs, beekeeping and plumbing and masonry projects you could tackle by yourself.

All of this “I-think-I-can/I-think-I-can” philosophy was well established by the time the first personal computers came on the scene. In fact, the very first PC — the MITS Altair 8800 — was itself classic DIY, a build-it-yourself kit featured on the cover of “Popular Electronics” in 1975. Meanwhile, personal computing’s first royalty — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak and so many others — sprang from the famed Homebrew Computer Club, a legendary Silicon Valley hobbyist group that invited young innovators to share what they were learning about building hardware and writing software.

It’s no wonder, then, that a DIY spirit remains tightly woven in the computer community that we have inherited these 40 years later. The very web that most of us use everyday was conceived as a build-it-then-share-it medium. And the breadth and depth of these shared online resources continue to astound me.

When I started writing about computers in the 1980s, I began collecting what would amount to several bookcases full of reference books and instruction manuals. But these days, I almost never crack one of those volumes. In fact, I’ve begun packing them up and hauling them away to free up that storage space in my office.

Nowadays when I face a computer problem I turn, not to books, but to Google. Whether it’s a gnarly HTML or CSS coding problem with one of my websites, a complex project I want to tackle in Photoshop or just an obscure feature on my iPhone, I’ve learned that someone online has likely already slayed that particular dragon. All I have to do is craft a specific enough search query and let Google find the answer for me.

Sure, I may need to drill down into the results to find the best solution for my situation, but that also can be beneficial: the act of shifting the findings often gives me a broader understanding of my own problem.

And of course, searching Google isn’t the only game in town when it comes to solving problems and learning. Who sitting in the Homebrew Club in the late 1970s could have imagined something as amazing as YouTube?

Founded nine years ago by three former PayPal employees as a place to freely share homebrewed videos, these days YouTube has statistics that are simply extraordinary:

  • 100 hours of free video are uploaded every minute;
  • more adults ages 18 to 34 visit YouTube than any cable network, according to Nielsen;
  • some 1 billion unique users go to YouTube each month;
  • over 6 billion hours of video are watched every month. That amounts to — get this! — almost an hour of video for every person on the planet.
Of course, much of that free video features the same old DIY story: people showing other people how to do things.

Want to learn how to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on a banjo? On a guitar? A mandolin? A fiddle? You have a wide selection of free YouTube tutorials to choose from.

Need to learn how to build a stone wall, with or without mortar? It’s on there.

Got to know how to change a diaper, your brake pads, a Wi-Fi password or your skin in the game of Minecraft? Someone has done a video and it is waiting just for you.

And now the social media also are getting into the DIY game. Every night on Facebook or Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, someone is starting a post with, “Hey, anybody know how to ... ?” Usually within minutes, suggestions start rolling in.

It was popular in the early days of personal computing to refer to the web as a kind of anything-goes wilderness with trading posts perched here and there at which digital explorers occasionally landed to share what they had found in their wandering. Today much of the frontier has been staked out and paved, but the spirit of sharing still is very much alive.

And you, too, can contribute. The more I see the more I realize everybody knows something somebody else wants to know.