Ok, you've all got DVD players now. But before pondering the next step--Blu-ray? HD DVD? Downloaded movies?--give a thought to that old VHS player in the garage. The flashing "12:00" still pops up when you plug it in, doesn't it? Isn't the machine good for something ?
Well, if you were among the 70,000-or-so readers of Make magazine, you would have an answer. A new life awaits your wheezing videocassette recorder... as a time-release cat-food dispenser. After only a weekend of work--two fun-filled days involving an old meat grinder, parts from a broken lawn mower and serious surgery on something called the video head drum assembly--you will have a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that dispenses Tabby's kibble while you're away at the Burning Man festival.
Dale Dougherty, Make's editor and publisher, has no idea how many people actual-ly followed his magazine's instructions to build this contraption. But he does know that a substantial audience is hungry for literature that provides a how-to approach to projects that merge a high-tech constructionist sensibility with a penchant for junkyard (or eBay) scavenging. At one year old, the magazine has four times the subscribers he'd estimated for that milestone. It joins a bookshelf's worth of recent tomes directed at people who interpret "don't try this at home" as the exact opposite. Furthermore, the Internet has spawned countless interest groups engaged in like enterprises. One, called Dorkbot, generates monthly gatherings in more than 30 cities worldwide for "people doing strange things with electricity."
All this is evidence of a growing movement of people eager to tinker with high-tech gadgets and Dumpster detritus--and, I suspect, an even bigger population harboring fantasies about modding their espresso machines, building their own printed circuit boards and engaging in the brave new world of kite aerial photography. We've already seen the popularity of house porn (shelter magazines and "Extreme Home Makeover"), car porn (auto mags and "Pimp My Ride") and food porn ("Iron Chef"). Now we've got geek DIY (do it yourself) porn. Just as would-be Emerils pore over lushly illustrated cookbooks with recipes involving hard-to-find morels and complicated instructions for roux, Tom Swift wanna-bes are devouring Make and reading books like William Gurstelle's "Backyard Ballistics," which has sold more than 160,000 copies.
Gurstelle, an engineer from Minnesota who makes his own medieval-style catapults, readily admits that not everyone who reads his books winds up building tennis-ball mortars, fire kites and horse trebuchets. But both he and Dougherty make a case that whether you're a builder or a dreamer, the Maker Ethic is empowering. Its lesson is that in a world where we are overwhelmed by stuff, we should aggressively assert control over the gadgets around us, even if it means voiding the warranty and occasionally frying a finger. Also, we should view extreme Makers as role models. Gurstelle's latest book, "Adventures From the Technology Underground," profiles amateurs who build flamethrowers, rockets and humongous Tesla coils. (My favorite quote: "Pumpkin-hurling devices do not fit well in the municipal zoning code.")
What's more, as we spend more time with our computers, the primal side of us yearns for the visceral kick of hands-on experience. Killing a thousand aliens in some pixilated corner of cyberspace can never duplicate the satisfying phoomph that comes from shooting a potato out of a homemade PVC-pipe cannon.
That's why I see a big future in geek DIY lit. And that's why I'm not throwing out that vintage videocassette player in my basement. One day, if I ever get a cat, a soldering iron and a spare weekend, I might just build the "Programmabowl VCR." Meanwhile, I'll read all about it.