The end of DIY

Self-reliance is one of the hallmarks of mature adulthood. By most accounts it takes time to develop. Self-reliance is also strongly associated with access to nature.

self-reliance-1-2Outdoor pursuits fall into the orbit of “rational” outdoor recreation as promoted by 19th century reformers intent on helping the working classes do something healthy with their spare time.

Outdoor sports, walking in the countryside and more adventurous pursuits are good for you and promote the ability to be independent. You learn not to rely on the comforts of city living and its attendant support structures — including minders, helpers, guides, counsellors, authority figures and the state.

Of course, to develop “self-reliance” is really to shift reliance structures from the paternal/maternal to teams of peers and contexts of mutual support, and to assume a demeanour that complains less, takes responsibility and gets on with the job at hand.

Technologies confound this journey to self-reliance somewhat. In the face of our increasing dependence on digital technologies it gets harder to maintain the illusion, let alone the reality, of self reliance.

So there’s a conflict. Those of us who believe in the primacy of the individual — self-sufficient, and independent — become aware of our dependence on transportation systems, networks, smartphones, and other accoutrements of the modern world.


Nature comes to stand in for self-reliance. It’s the site in which our independence is most clearly exercised. Amongst all the technologies on which we rely, our phones and other personal devices demonstrate the countervailing condition — technological reliance. So no wonder we are conflicted in our love affair with our devices.

I think there are two main ways that digital devices offend our ideal of self-reliance.

  • The first is via the functions provided by such technologies — information, communication, navigation, and countless other app functionalities. We can’t do without many of them, or at least we let ourselves be persuaded that they are indispensable. See post: A nation addicted to smartphones.
  • The second affront to self-reliance is our increasing dependence on tech support from other human beings.  It’s not just that you have to learn how to select, purchase and use these things, but there are upgrades to download and install, new access protocols to negotiate, new peripherals and features to purchase. Many people need help with these challenges from others.

I attended a conference a few weeks ago on ageing, which inevitably included informal discussions about technology, where I discovered that gerontechnology is a thing — with a journal as well. The situation is particularly acute with older people, but not exclusively so. As any educator knows, not everyone is willing to ask for help or to play the student. Calling on tech-support after all challenges our self-regard (especially if we can’t follow their instructions) and our sense of self-reliance.



  • The Outward Bound website list training in self-reliance amongst the skill set it imparts to leaders in training: “Skill development is the backbone of all Outward Bound wilderness expeditions. You learn to read a map, develop teamwork skills, and find hidden reserves of inner strength just when you think your tank is empty. Wilderness Skills: You learn wilderness skills such as shouldering your pack, paddling your boat and surviving and thriving in the wind, rain and cold.
    Team Skills: You set goals and make decisions as a group while relying on compassion and tolerance to transform from a group into a team.
    Leadership Skills: You practice personal leadership, initiative, good judgment and self-reliance.” (accessed 29 Oct 2016)



  1. I liked the title of this piece, and I hoped that there may be some commentary on the diffusion of electronic kits which include microprocessors such as Arduino, Raspberry PI and so forth. We brought a few of these things out to Cambodia so that we could spark the kids up with an interest in hardware/software and something of what happens underneath the bonnet so to speak, say, when they play Minecraft [which they all accept forthrightly]. The problem is that these commodities fall short on delivering to them what they consider ‘whole’ experiences. I remember all to well early adopter friends who bought ZX81s and then spent hours, if not days, programming a television display to show a circle, and then show this off to waiting public. I was a electronic, aspiring digital, musician, and felt, rightly so, that we were way ahead of this already in sound. These microprocessor chips already mentioned, and other such as Intel Edison, have inscribed within their publicity a view that consumers are innovators. They are Edisons if you will, and they will, through shear grunt statistical might çome up’with something as radical as a telephone or TV. We were disappointed in Cambodia when our LEDs didn’t flash as given in the recipe, as will all other DIY electronic genius’ who buy these kits.

    1. It’s interesting how constructor kits of various kinds encourage mimicry, or at least, following instructions and templates in order to replicate a specific artefact, rather than invent something of your own. Perhaps the innovation is meant to come later. As a teenager I had access to a Philip’s Electronic Engineering Kit. It was a thrill to set up a home intercom with cables trailing through the house, though I never understood the electronics enough to invent my own circuits. I did though discover what it sounded like when you short circuited the wiring by touching bits of it. I found this online

  2. That was a wonderful example and an ironic one at that – as I watched the video I realise I actually had this very kit, and began to recognise the circuit diagram and the particular way it kept its components connected by sort of paperclips held within springs. The whole aesthetic of electronics is emphasised by its symbolic iconic ‘circuit’ underlying the collective function of the real bits pieces and their mysterious invisible inner workings. It is as a failsafe emphasising the recipe. Do not follow at your peril. Again, I remember most distinctly the ‘coil’ – the rolling pin picture down the left hand side of the diagram. It is interesting and most probably down to the predilections and dispositions of the builder regarding their preference and motivations regarding to whether to copy and emulate or engage and ‘muck about’. Probably herein is the difference between typologies of modular systems and their components, gestalts, openess and readiness for innovation. We also took a bunch of lego bricks for the younger kids to Cambodia and most of them were quite happy to knock up whatever they could find by using. Yes there were constraints – lack of parts, the manner in which they could connect etc., but there was certainly art school imagination and industry [there is pic of some of the simple things they put together here Without ever seeing or ever playing with Lego they made things and when they were even a considerable departure from the represented object, they filled in the gaps with imagination, and were able to explain and tell stories in and around what they had made (aka Turkle’s evocative objects). The Lego play contrasted with the electronic kit play in that the components hold other functional qualities beyond that of connecting together – i.e. a resistor is not a capacitor in a different way that a lego block is not a wheel. Just as you set out to wire up the house with an intercom it would have been a serious jump in imagination and in technology to start thinking about an early rendition of the Cambridge coffee pot and its IP number (was this famous example inspired by the coffee, the pot, or the internet, or the people that drunk from it or their roles in life?). It can be quite easy to see if a lego block ‘works’ or not, if not, select another one. In one electronic kit we had – we eventually discovered – after all the kids were bored senseless and wanted to go back to playing Minecraft – that there was a dud capacitor in the circuit (found eventually through painstakingly, mindlessly numbing, imagination thwarting, substitution). As I remember, half the time with that kit depicted in the YouTube video you were condemned to checking those paperclip springs and making sure that components were actually touching. And without sophisticated meters the acid test was whether the radio, or intercom, or burglar alarm worked or not.

      1. I’ve corrected it in your original as well. Thanks for the inspiring comments. Resistors, capacitors, diodes and transistors populate my recollections, as well as those little springs. The multi-pronged transistors were the magical components. Around the same time I was given volume 1 of a full-on electronics course, that started with valves. So I never got far enough with the theory.

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