Change yourself by doing it yourself: Colin Marshall talks to Make magazine editor Mark Frauenfelder

Mark Frauenfelder is the editor of Make magazine and co-founder the zine which has become the massively popular blog Boing Boing. His latest book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, is the story of his quest to fully customize his life by building, maintaining, and operating as much as possible with his own hands: hacking his espresso machine, making his own sauerkraut, building cigar-box guitars, brewing his own kombucha, and carving his own spoons, to name only a few of his eclectic set of pursuits. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas.

Frauenfelder I feel like I've gotten to know publishing well enough to assume that your publisher loved the hook: here's this guy who, to some peoples' minds, embodies the internet, who has suddenly turned around, started raising chickens himself and making cigar-box guitars. How much could we characterize the book as a quest for a sort of balance?

I think that is a really good description of what it was. I do spend a lot of tine just sitting behind my computer, writing and blogging and editing articles. I'm not really using my hands other than moving a mouse around and tapping a keyboard. The book was my exploration of opportunities to use my hands in meaningful ways. That included raising chickens and becoming a beekeeper and making musical instruments, learning woodcarving and those kinds of things. It was a chance to get outside, a chance to connect with my kids and my family, and to make things that have a useful purpose in my life.

It makes me think of this one thing Brian Eno wrote, his complaint made many times over the course or his career that computers use one little finger of ours, when the human body has all this variety of muscles. Here we are using a few of them. I'll give it more than the one finger, but we're using such a limited range. How long did it take you before you started thinking to yourself, “Jeez, I don't feel so good using just the parts that need to interface with the computer”?

I've been feeling that all along, ever since I've been using computers. That's why I like taking walks or riding my bike and doing exercise like that. This took it to another level, where you're actually really engaged with all those muscles, and you're thinking at the same time, which is a really good combination. You've probably heard the expression “learning with your hands” or “thinking with your hands.” It's really true . Your hands are an important part of the thinking process. When they're active in doing something, it really does put you into a different brain state, a flow state.

You describe originally coming on board with Make magazine, how you expected certain numbers, but it got even better numbers of subscribers than you'd thought it would. How much do you think there was a wider — I don't know if “longing” is the right term, but — a wider desire to get beyond the ways people had generally learned to interface with technology, i.e., through a graphical user interface in many cases?

This is just my guess, but from my observations I think it might be true. For the last fifteen years, the kind of person who's interested in creating things, using technology — that kind of person became fascinated with the World Wide Web. It was this uncharted territory just begging to be developed and experimented with. For the last fifteen years, these nerdy, geeky people have been developing the web, turning it into this amazing place that it is. But they're starting to look up over their monitor, realizing that the world around them is this great hackable platform too, and that they can apply that creativity to the real world.

You allude to the earlier days you had working with technology. I think about how computers must've been in the seventies and the eighties, certainly before I was using them. When you go back far enough, is it accurate to say that, at some point, using computers was hands-on, D.I.Y. sort of stuff? This was handmade technology before a certain point in time, right?

I think so. Before personal computers became easy to use and easier to maintain, electronic hobbyists were interested in these things. They were designing their own computers or other electronic equipment. You saw that in magazines like Popular Electronics, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics. They were loaded with projects that people could to do make things. It wasn't until the World Wide Web revolution that that fell by the wayside. People were makers by necessity a longer time ago, because electronics were really expensive. You did have to maintain your own things.

When I was really young, when our TV set would break, my dad would take the back off and pull the tubes out. You'd go down to the corner drug store and plug the tubes into this machine. A little meter would tell you if the tubes were good or not. Then you could buy replacement tubes. People had a more active relationship with the well-being of their technology; they wanted to make sure it didn't break down, because replacing it was really expensive, a lot more expensive than maintaining it. Today, TVs are much cheaper. When they break, you can't even open them, because they're glued together. You just throw it away and buy another one.

How much would you say, by virtue of your interests and what you've done as your career, that you've always related a little more actively to your technology, always been a little more of a maker in terms of the things you use?

I would actually say I was interested in do-it-yourself media a lot more than physical things. I had a 'zine; my blog Boing Boing was actually a 'zine in the eighties. When the web came along, I got really interested in blogging. The nice thing about D.I.Y. media, especially on a computer, is that Command+Z eliminates any mistakes. I didn't like making mistakes. If you're building a chicken coop or go-kart, if you mess something up, it's a lot harder to fix. That was something I explored in my book.

I discovered all these alpha makers, people I really respect who are great at making cool things. They don't have a fear of failure anymore. They make mistakes as much as anybody else does, but they realize that's an unavoidable part of it. They don't make a big deal or get overly upset if something goes wrong. That was a philosophy I forced myself to take on when I started doing these things. It really helped a lot, to keep that in mind.

You certainly included that fantastic quote, the one about failure being the great teacher. That resonated immedeiately with me. I thought, not only is failure a great teacher, it's kind of the only one. No matter what I'm doing, completely through a computer or were I to make a table — I assume, because I've never made a table — the only way to learn in an absolute sense is by failing and learning from that. Do you agree or disagree?

I do agree. Certainly it's one of the most effective and fastest ways to learn, when you make mistakes. From some of the brain research I've been reading, the kind of neural circuits formed during learning are formed much more quickly and indelibly from mistakes than through rote repetition or listening to a lecture.

The whole phenomenon of Control+Z and what a boon that has been to us, the good old undo command, there's the issue of how you think differently when making something, when trying to learn, when working on something where you don't have Control+Z. I happen to also make films, and there's a certain distinct difference, psychologically, when shooting on very, very, very cleap digital video and on actual celluloid film. It's not simply a case of spending more money; the approach also feels different. Is there an analogy for every sort of domain where you can make something on a computer, or make something not on a computer?

I do think that's true. I've heard that even with writers who wrote using a typewriter and then started using computers, how it changed the way they wrote novels, that they were more thoughtful before. It involves more planning, designing something that's not on a computer, because mistakes have consequences. If you are using a computer, you can blindly forge ahead and experiment. There's advantages to that, but there's also something about that kind of thoughtfulness of being more cautious and using your imagination to foresee consequences of taking an action when you're doing something with physical things.

Because you're a writer, I want to get your perspective on this as well. A surprising amount of novelists I read about still use longhand. I tried it out myself, and it was amazing — not necessarily better or worse — the difference in process that resulted. When you write, are you writing straight to a document file? Are you using other physical means before that? How do you do it?

I almost always write on the computer. If I'm writing a longer piece, I'll use an application called Scrivener that's great for research. You can just drag web documents onto it, storing interviews and things like that. When I have written something by hand, like on an airplane with a notebook, it is a different process. You slow down more, because there's more effort expended in writing with a pen, at least for me, than using a computer. Like you said, it's not necessarily better or worse, but it is a different feeling.

As I mentioned at the beginning, almost everyone listening to this, probably everyone in the developed world, has seen Boing Boing. They've gotten into debates in the comments section. What was Boing Boing like as a 'zine? I'm really curious about this.

I started putting it together in about 1988 with my wife. At that time, we were interested in things like cyberpunk science fiction and the independent comics movement and especially the way computers were becoming cheap enough that they were getting in the hands of people who could use them for creative purposes. Exploring the things people who are interested in technology liked — that was what Boing Boing was about.

We had interviews with science fiction authors. We had a lot of science fiction authors write nonfiction for us, like Bruce Sterling going to Akihabara in Tokyo and writing about that or Rudy Rucker doing autobiographical comic strips for us. It was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it a lot. A lot of that spirit is still in Boing Boing as it is. You see a lot of comic books and alternative art and science fiction and creative uses of technology. It hasn't changed that much, what our purview is.

Do you think of it as an evolution purely in medium for Boing Boing, as in, if the internet hadn't been invented, we'd be seeing a lot of the same content still in the 'zine form today?

I do think so. We even had a section in Boing Boing called “Neurotica,” which was quick hits of surprising things we read about in the media that are very similar to blog posts. In many ways, it was like a blog. In the last year, Boing Boing has started running original feature-length articles, so in some ways it's becoming more like the 'zine again.

That is quite fascinating, what differences a medium can make and what you're left with when you take the medium out of an entity like Boing Boing. What are you still thinking about? I'm not going to ask too many questions about early Boing Boing, but there's something fascinating to me about the cultural moment of when Boing Boing was started — the late eighties, the early nineties.
References to that time in technology, computing, and the internet have come up a lot lately in what I've read. What impressions can you give us of your own view of technology at that time? It seems to be a time of “history” when the attitude toward technology was very different before, and very different after. What can you tell us about right then?

At that time, I, along with a lot of other people, just started to get the inkling that digital technology was offering people a chance to make media and get their message spread to a potentially large audience. Desktop publishing made it so that people could make nice-looking 'zines. The corner Xerox store made it so you could publish those pretty cheaply and send them out to people.

Even more so were the bulletin board systems people were setting up. You had this whole network of people connected by modem starting to share documents and files and discuss things. Tom Jennings' Fidonet system allowed people to send messages that would hop from bulletin board system to bulletin board system. It was like a really early version of the web, an internet people could access through phone lines. That kind of thing was exciting.

People were starting to imagine where it could go from there. Writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and the cyberpunk authors were looking at what was going on and extrapolated and painted this future of a really networked planed. That got people even more excited. Virtual reality, people were taking notice of that. In reality, things were pretty clunky and virtual reality didn't work very well. There was nothing like the world Neal Stephenson imagined in Snow Crash, but we were seeing technology move along pretty quickly, and we were reading about all these things. It was really exciting.

I think a lot of these people who were inspired by all this actually did get into developing the tools that allowed the World Wide Web to really spread. Things like the Apache server system were made by science-fiction geeks.

I talk to people about this sort of thing, and it seems like, as the technology has advanced, as the internet has become less D.I.Y., there's been a great thing happen: the audience for anything you do on the net has exploded, as you can see in the size of Boing Boing's audience, many of whom might not have bothered to go on the internet ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. At the same time, some I talk to say something has also been lost in that exchange. Do you agree?

“Lost” — could you maybe rephrase — I'm not exactly sure…

It's a tough concept, in a way, even for me to understand. As technology for the net has gotten more widespread, easier to use — basically anybody can get on it — it has been a net, as it were, good. It has increased what people can do on there, has increased who can go on there, the audience and the number of creators. It's increased pretty much everything. But I talk to some people who see a certain downside to that, where they would have found a certain type of engagement on the net in, say, the early nineties, now it's harder to find among a lot of talk about, I don't know, search engine optimization or Facebook?

Are you saying that the popularity of the internet, that there's so many people on it now, makes it not as much fun as it used to be?

That's the thing: it's not what I'm saying, but it's what I'm trying to know if what people who make similar complaints to me are saying. Since you're embedded in a culture where I'm sure, at some point, you've heard a similar sentiment, I just wanted to get your idea about that, if anything has been lost in the whole explosion that has been good for the internet. Have there been downsides?

It's always fun at the beginning of a movement. It's exciting times. You're there with a lot of like-minded people who feel they're together for a common cause. They share a lot of interests. Once that space has been developed, you make it easier for other people to come in who don't necessarily share those values. They move in and take over, because they're a much larger percentage of the population that the folks who were there earlier on.

I do see that, but the cool thing about the internet is that there's so many different pockets. You can create your own pocket universe anywhere, and people will join it. Like

Yes, that's what I was going to bring up right away when you mentioned the pockets. Cigarboxnation. I still can't believe it.

There's like 3,000 people around the world who are cigar-box guitar-making enthusiasts. People who make musical instruments not only with cigar boxes but cookie tins and oil cans and pieces of driftwood they find. They post their videos of playing it, they post their process photos building them, they post instructions, they talk to each other about sources for materials, give tips to each other. It's an amazing place. I've learned a lot from them, a really fine group of people happy to share their knowledge.

There are groups like that for almost everything. There's one for people who build autonomous flying drones. People who raise and share praying mantises and praying mantis egg sacs. Whatever you want to find, there's a group out there. It's not infiltrated; it's the complete opposite of the comments section of Youtube.

This is one of the most fascinating underlying elements of your book. You have this premise where you're going to do the activities so seemingly un-techie and un-internet-y. They're not considered activities where you need technology they use every day when they go on the net. Yet, for every pursuit you do in here, from raising chickens to growing a vegetable garden to making gallon upon gallon upon gallon of kombucha, there's an internet community. All of those communities were very important to you to accomplish these things outside of the internet, correct?

They were tremendously important. It's become the place to go to report on what you've done and find out what other people have done. Thank goodness people have this natural inclination to share information without being compensated for it. It might be something to do with the way we are wired from evolution, sharing survival skills with other people in the tribe. People love to show off what they've done, also oftentimes help other people.

There's this stereotype of the garage inventor who's really secretive about the things he's made. He's afraid someone will steal his ideas and stuff. But really, from what I've learned from Make magazine and writing this book, these people are open and eager to get novices started in doing the thing they're doing.

As far as Make magazine, there's so much to discuss. Are we seeing a wave of making going on in our moment, or are venues like Make merely exposing us to the making already going on? Is there more making now, or do we just know about more making? How could we even tell if one were the case or the other?

I think there is more making going on. Part of it is what I said about peoples' response to having been using their computers and playing video games so long that they kind of forgot about making things and they're rediscovering what had been popular with their parents and grandparents. The internet is helping to accelerate the ability to make things. Plans for making things are evolving quickly online. You go to, you can say, “Well, here's a better way to do it.” You'll immediately get feedback.

I posted a ginger ale recipe on Boing Boing earlier this week, and right away I got all sorts of suggestions on how to improve the process to make it safer and tastier. A long time ago, it would've been years and years before somebody would've come over to my house and tried my ginger ale and said, “Oh, I've made ginger ale before, and you're doing it wrong. Here's how to do it.” On the internet, it was five seconds and I started getting all these great ideas.

It seems like a true irony of this sort of story. I imagine myself, if I wanted to make a cigar-box guitar 20, 25 years ago, I would've just stood around shrugging my shoulders unless I was tapped into some kind of real-life community of cigar-box guitar-makers. Without the net, I don't think I would be able to do a lot of the things that allow me to escape the net. It's kind of weird, but kind of cool, maybe?

I totally understand what you mean. For cigar-box guitars, it was something that happened in the south a lot. Their relative or their father or an uncle had a cigar-box guitar, and the kid would say, “Oh, I want one!” They would learn that way. With the internet, your options of trying things out have opened up. It makes it a lot easier.

I don't want to discount how great it his to actually meet up with other people in person. There's these things called “hacker spaces” popping up all over the country, where people chip in to pay the rent on a place, typically a run-down storefront, put shop tools in there, and their monthly dues go towards workshops, materials, things like that. Those are really a cool development that I've been seeing.

I imagine a lot of people who just get into making have to fight with a kind of preset switch flipped inside their minds. When you're brewing your own kombucha, one might think, “Oh, I've got to beat down the impulse of just going to buy it at the store, because I know that, in the end, brewing it myself, I'm going to gain more.” But there's that stumbling block: “Wait a minute. Am I doing something dumb?” Was that impulse ever there for you to have to defeat?

Sure. Don't knock convenience. Convenience is great, and I'm glad I can go to the supermarket and buy all sorts of food inexpensively or buy gadgets. If that's all I did, I would feel something was missing from my life. By choosing the things you want to do, a small subset of all activities in your life, by taking control and charge of those things, it can be more fulfilling.

That was why I focused on food in the book. I knew that, by working on projects about producing food and doing old-school preservation methods, that would have a daily effect on my life. Every single day, my family would be eating something we made. It's really fulfilling and makes you more proud about that part of your life. You're also more aware and observant. When you make your own yogurt, you spend more time thinking about the way it taste. That ripples into other things you do. You start tasting the yogurt you buy in the store and comparing. It makes you a more observant person, which is a great thing.

I talk to friends who use the net for work a lot; they're in what you might call the knowledge-work industry, and they have to spend time doing everything they do in the world through a computer. A lot of them do end up turning to the hobby of cooking at home. Not necessarily making their own sauerkraut or yogurt, but they will do a lot of cooking at home. They'll say it's got a physicality to it, a very hard-core analog-ness lacking in what they do during the day. Do you think, when you're making sauerkraut at home or brewing your own kombucha, there's an extension of that sentiment?

I think so. Cooking is a really fun, fulfilling activity, and it is one that goes against the urge of convenience. You can get delicious prepared foods almost anywhere, but to make it yourself, you're slowing down and paying attention to what you're doing, being observant, making decisions. You're challenging yourself in ways that are more involved than they would be if you were just picking something off the shelf.

At the beginning of the book, you talk about the lifestyle you and your family had come to fall into. You describe a constant inflow of products, and would I be correct in saying you describe a bit of regret at some awareness of neat stuff in life that had been lost before you moved to the South Pacific, before you tried all these D.I.Y. projects. How would you describe the feeling of life at that time?

You mean before we left for Rarotonga?

Before all of this. There's certain passages in the book where you talk in a way I'm sure was designed to induce some level of skin-crawlingness in the reader. You had a lot of stuff — a lot of cool stuff, no doubt — flowing into your life. A lot of entertainment, a lot of gadgets. But it wasn't necessarily stuff you found yourself valuing due to its sheer volume?

I think so. If you end up being able to buy the solution to every problem you have or fill every wish you have, it's not as nice when you do get it. I noticed that when we would go out to dinner all the time, that experience isn't really special. Now that we have two kids and we need to get a babysitter every time we go out, it's much less frequent. You enjoy that experience of dining out a lot more. It becomes different and enjoyable. It was that way with gadgets we would get. If you're more selective about the things you introduce, or if you have a hand in creating those things, then you become more appreciative of those things in your life.

So as not to confuse any listener who hasn't read the book, we did mention your move to the South Pacific island of Rarotonga. I've heard and read a few interviews with you about this book; that tends to get latched onto as a core emblem of this book, this opening move to Rarotonga. There's a certain way it's framed in the book which makes total sense in the context of the D.I.Y. journey you go on after. When you made that move, how much of an inkling did you have that this was the direction you needed to go in life?

We were just looking around for a solution. Moving there was not the answer, but we did discover the seeds of the answer. We thought that by moving far away from Los Angeles, we would get away from the complex life we had where we would just buy everything we needed. The truth was, when we got there, we didn't have much of a plan other than just being in a small tropical island in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't until we spent a lot of time there and, frankly, were kind of bored because we didn't have that much to do, that we started getting really into food.

The coconuts we found in the yard that would fall out of the trees — it turned out to be quite an ordeal to husk the coconut and extract everything. You had to use this coconut-scraping bench. It became this all-day event. It ended up being the most fun we had on the island. We would really look forward to what we called “Coconut Day”. We would make scones, coconut pancakes, coconut cream to put on the fish we would buy there. That all of a sudden became the answer, to get involved with making your food. When we got back, we continued doing that Coconut Day thing.

The example of moving to the South Pacific is the extreme example of what I've come to consider performing an experiment on one's own life. As is something like trying to kill your lawn and grow a vegetable garden on it; I consider it to be an experiment in life in the sort of “Can I do this?” or “What will my life be like if I do this?” sense.

It seems like performing experiments on your life is one of the great pleasures life has to offer. Is that a way you've thought about it as well, putting aside any notions of making or D.I.Y., just experimenting with your life, seeing how your life will change if you do this or set up this or try changing your space?

Absolutely. I think you really nailed it. It's so interesting to try those kinds of things, and to experiment. My wife and I have tried different things. We lived in London for a while, Japan for awhile. Immersing yourself in a different culture, you really do experience life in a different way, think about the life you had before in a different way. It enriches your experience and appreciation for the world. Definitely, these experiments are a way to have a richer, more meaningful life. You really nailed it there.

About the stumbling blocks people have when they want to perform these experiments for themselves — a lot of people think, “Oh, I feel like maybe I kind of want to move to England or Japan” or “Wouldn't it be great if I could grow a vegetable garden?” People say these things a lot, but no matter if you do it successfully, have to do it a bunch of times, or if you never do it, there's always, I would imagine, the resistance at the beginning. What kind of resistance, within yourself, do you encounter?

One of them is just leaving your comfort zone. It's hard to do that. You have a routine and it's working pretty well, so you reach a point of, is the routine boring enough that I have to try something else? Once it hits that, then you do it. You leave your comfort zone, you're going to an area you don't know a lot about, you're experiencing it on your own a lot of times because there aren't other people interested in doing it with you. There's that feeling, am I doing something really ridiculous and stupid? Why am I even doing this?

There were some things I decided not to do. I was thinking it'd be fun to generate my own electricity as much as possible by building this stationary bicycle. It's got a giant plywood flywheel. You pedal it, and it's basically a generator; you can charge up a bank of batteries. Some people use that to heat their toast or power their computer. But when you look at the efficiency of it, I realized I could be pedaling nonstop, 24 hours a day, and I'd only be supplying like one percent of my family's electricity needs. There's no payoff for that. I'm not knocking people who do like to do that; if they find value in doing that, that's good. I guess there's exercise involved. For me, I wanted to focus on projects that were really reasonable and had a lot of bang for the buck.

There is the element of the trade-off. At this point, I would assume any type of fear about these sorts of things, you've pretty much found a way around based on all you've tried.

Getting over the fear was really good for me, the fear of making mistakes. It's been a positive effect of all this. Now, when something goes wrong in the house, I'm more inclined to try to solve it myself before calling an expert in. I'm sure things I do take a lot longer than an expert would take, but I eventually get it done. I have that sense of self-efficacy now that makes that possible.

Toward the very end, there's the point made — a very relevant point, important enough to be the last thing in the book — that when you're doing these projects, you're really making a change in yourself. Like you mention, there's that sense of self-efficacy. What else is there beyond that?

For everybody, it will lead them down different paths. Another pretty profound effect it's had on me is, it made me more curious about how the man-made world works. You start looking at the way furniture is fastened and put together, how things are wired. If I do have a plumber over, I'm really interested in their equipment and how they use it. Once you start getting more involved in the world around you and taking responsibility for maintaining it, those things suddenly become a lot more interesting.

My dad's a big do-it-yourselfer and does a lot of his own home wiring. He's an electrical engineer, so he's allowed to do that. When he would do that, I didn't really pay any attention. But when he came out here to visit, we had to do some wiring for the automatic door opener on the chicken coop I built. We went down to Home Depot to buy the parts, and he knew exactly what to get. I paid attention this time. Now, those kinds of things are interesting to me. Just changing my way I view the world has been a positive effect of all this.

It reminds me of what they used to say about the classic liberal education one would get in college: it makes the interior of your head a more interesting place to be. Would you consider that a comparable sentiment to the one you have about what you get from making?

I think so. It gives you opportunities to challenge yourself all the time, to use your creativity and critical thinking skills. There really is no time I'm bored, because there's always another project I want to be working on.

Out of curiosity, how many projects do you have going on at once?

I don't have that many going on. I probably have like four going on right now. Perfecting my ginger ale-making skills — I need to go get some new equipment for that. I'm working on a little gadget that keeps peanut butter stirred. I buy the natural peanut butter that separates easily, so this will keep it so that it's always nice consistency, the oil and solid parts are mixed. It'll rotate the jar every 24 hours 180 degrees.

I'm working on a system to send an ultrasonic sound towards my neighbor's hours, because we have a dog that's barking all the time at night. The guy's always gone. I bought this ultrasonic generator, an amplifier, and some ultratweeters that can play sounds above the hearing level. Hopefully it'll quiet the dog down.

Please send any and all feedback to colinjmarshall at gmail.