How “making” leads to “fixing”

This month I wrote my Wired column about how we need to go past the “maker” movement — and begin a “fixer” movement. The idea had been rattling around in my head for a while, because I was getting increasingly appalled by the amount of toxic electronic stuff that was breaking around me; I’d also been reading The Waste Makers, the fabulous 1960 book by crusading journalist Vance Packard). And I’d been learning about the extremely cool fixer collectives that were cropping up around the world. Environmentalism, handiness, problem-solving: This is catnip for me! I wanted to write about it.

When I reread my piece now, though, I realize I’m slightly uncomfortable with one aspect of it — which is that it looks as though I was taking a dismissive swing at the maker movement. Hey guys! Stop doing this self-indulgent “making” — start being serious, sober-minded “fixers!” Making has moved sufficiently far into the mainstream that it has provoked its own entirely-predictable backlash; for any critic looking for easy targets, there’s an endlessly mockable supply of people selling twee things on Etsy, or hawking funding for dubious Kickstarter projects. (A great recent satire: The “Kickstopper” video.)

Except this critique is misguided. That’s because of a simple fact of maker/fixer psychology: Making often leads to fixing. When you get seduced into trying to make something, you wind up accumulating the mindset and skills that are crucial to fixing stuff in our throwaway, made-to-break world.

This precisely what happened to me. A couple of years ago I saw the Chronulator analog clock on Boing Boing, fell in love with it, and ordered a kit. I hadn’t done much soldering in aeons, so it was a steep learning curve. But that got me interested in making other weird electronic projects, so I started messing around with Arduino kits — and as with most making, I wound up with a host of partially-built, abandoned, sad little pieceworks of failure. But an interesting side effect emerged: Because I’d become much more comfortable with electronics I started ripping open things when they’d break to see if I could fix them. This led me to discover, as I wrote in my Wired column, that many Dell and HP laptops are super easy to fix … so now I think nothing of opening up a neighbor’s laptop to try and repair it.

The same thing happened with woodworking. I saw the cigar-box guitar that Mark Frauenfelder made, wanted to make one, and was thus forced to learn a bunch of woodcrafting techniques. (That’s the guitar I made, above!) And again, pretty soon the woodworking also started spilling over into fixing: I started taking my old house’s misaligned doors off their hinges and resetting them, resurfacing old wood, ripping walls open to reach something busted within, knowing I could make it look new(ish) again after. Making was the seductive part, the fun part, and it opened my eyes to the fixability of the world around me. Or to put it another way, without doing the supposedly “silly” projects I’d never have done the “serious” ones. It’s a pattern that Mark has noted himself, including in his book Made by Hand and in this Q&A:

There are practical benefits to making things, but it seems that you’ve discovered other benefits, perhaps psychological or spiritual. Can you talk a little bit about how your own life has changed as a result of becoming a do-it-yourselfer?

I feel that my sense of being able to get things done, my self-efficacy, has increased. I’m less reluctant to take on projects that involve new skills or knowledge that I don’t have, because having gone through a bunch of things where I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and being able to eventually be successful in completing those projects and solving those problems, I know that probably with enough time and effort I can tackle those things that I normally would have shied away from, like fixing the thermostat that went on the blink a couple of weeks ago, instead of calling an HVAC expert to install a new one. I went online, read about it, and bought a thermostat. It took me a couple of hours to do it, but I got it done.

That said, there are some interesting differences in the psychologies of making vs. fixing. I’ve found it’s easier to be daring with fixer projects, because the emotional cost of failure is lower. If I’ve got a busted laptop, why not crack it open? What’s the worst I can do? Break it? It’s already broken! There’s also a sort of puzzle-solving pleasure in fixing, a sense of grappling with complexity. You encounter a lot of mystery that you’ll never solve and just have to live with, which is what makes repair a philosophically powerful activity. You learn humbleness in the face of intransigent reality. This was something Matthew Crawford wrote about in Shopcraft as Soulcraft:

Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience a failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and non-self.

Crawford is overly critical of making, I think; there are plenty of mysteries and puzzles when you’re building something from scratch, too. But the point here is good.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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