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Wired, MAKE, and MacGyver

The evolution of the geek mag

- April 25, 2005

Make magazineAmong the yellowed and worn volumes that make up the perpetual fire hazard that is my modest vintage magazine collection is Wired, issue 1.2 (May/June '93), the second published by then-editor Louis Rossetto and wife Jane Metcalfe. The design, which uses enough fluorescent orange to cause minor retinal damage and seems to be governed by the assumption that having sequential paragraphs follow one another in a linear fashion is not strictly necessary, makes the publication nearly unreadable—and the actual text only slightly less so. (That several of the original contributors are still contributors and infinitely more readable now suggests that Rossetto's talents as an innovator may have exceeded his talents as an editor.)

Wired launched to much fanfare and not a little controversy, which the "rants and raves" page—a.k.a., Letters to the Editor—in issue two reflects. Alongside short missives like, "Read your premiere issue…you guys really know what time it is!" from David Valentine of San Francisco, California, and reader Elliot Mitchell's slightly more exuberant "Ohgodohgodohgodohgod don't stop," a concerned Wired reader named Gary Chapman submitted the following:

I have to pass on my disappointment with the first issue of your magazine. In fact, it has made me angry. What has bothered me is the general style of the magazine and the pseudo-culture it reflects.

Wired appears to be yet another manifestation of a cultural crisis of our time, a crisis which has its roots in the effects of mass media and the rootless preoccupations of people who pass as "thinkers" in our age. People apparently have a very short attention span these days, probably a product of television, MTV, the pace of video cuts imitating MTV, the general frenzy of modern life.

I sincerely wish you well, although it may not sound like it. It's just that it's irresponsible in this day and age, with the country in the shape it's in, to be "fashionable" in the way that Wired seems to strive to be. It's yuppie bullshit. We've had enough of that. Let's talk about building a better world for everyone, with an appropriate place for computer technology.

Chapman, the head of the 21st Century Project, went on to write a scathing critique of the magazine in The New Republic in 1994, calling it "over the top" and "narcissistic." But Wired survived Chapman's slings and arrows and the profitable, large-circulation mag took home a National Magazine Award under current editor Chris Anderson just a few weeks ago. For all of its ups and downs—and it has certainly had a few—the magazine has been able to adapt because it became a publication that wasn't, as Chapman hinted in his critique, merely about computer technology.

Part of Wired's transformation has been a reaction to what happened outside of the magazine: Computer technology, once the domain of only the very technically adept, has become so pervasive that it has been seamlessly integrated into the everyday lives of most Americans. It's possible to produce a technology magazine that's accessible to a general audience in a way that it wouldn't have been a decade ago.

That said, part of the original Wired's appeal to early adopters was its focus on subculture. And if the old Wired no longer exists to fill that void, it has a ready spiritual successor in a recently launched magazine from computer book publisher O'Reilly Media.

MAKE magazine is described by its publishers as "part magazine and part book"—"mook" for short. (Perhaps to underscore the point, the title is listed under both "books" and "magazines" on Amazon.) "If you like to tweak, disassemble, re-create, and invent cool new uses for technology," says the book/mook description, "you'll love MAKE, our new quarterly publication for the inquisitive do-it-yourselfer." MAKE is essentially a hacker's guide to modifying and repurposing everyday technology. It's ReadyMade for geeks.

Included in the premiere issue are build-your-own guides for a cheap video stabilizer, a story about a guy who built a monorail in his backyard, product reviews of various tools and hacker accoutrements and some of stock topics you'd expect from a tech-oriented magazine (i.e., multiple references to MIT, robots, and Pong). "A linear accelerator for studying high-energy physics costs around $5 billion," reads the intro to one numbered instruction diagram. "But you can make one for about 30 bucks with four strong magnets, a wooden ruler, some plastic tape, and nine steel balls." The only potential uncharted terrain is a section on how to make things out of MAKE.

It goes without saying that nearly every review of MAKE references the long-cancelled ABC show, MacGyver, and the magazine/mook itself is unable to resist the impulse. (In Michael Rattner's review of Victorinox's Swiss Army Cybertool, he writes, "I've used it to open my PowerBook for a memory upgrade, gain access to a stubborn remote control's battery compartment, slice through an untold number of letters and packages, remove a tiny ingrown hair and to escape certain death by drowning using the can opener as a hook to unlock the door to a room that was being filled with water. [Oh wait, never mind, that was a MacGyver re-run.]) And it was precisely that appeal that made me buy the magazine last week while browsing the shelves at a Barnes & Noble. I'm not that technically oriented, but I had enough fun taking apart major appliances as a kid to appreciate the idea of doing it usefully and purposefully as an adult. (Besides, you never know when you'll be forced to evade a couple of guys with AK-47s using only a box of matches, a stick of gum, and some aluminium foil.)

But the beauty of MAKE isn't so much the practicality of it, but the way it translates what is nominally a subculture for a general audience, in much the same way Wired (wittingly or un-) did as it adapted. While many of the projects therein require a modicum of technical knowledge, culturally, MAKE is about everyday hacking—which is of increasingly greater interest to a general audience as consumers place higher premiums on customization. Music mash-ups, TiVo programming, made-to-order Nikes are symptoms of larger demand for a wide of consumer choices.

Gary Chapman's critique of the original Wired was predicated upon its supposed lack of civic responsibility, its "smug disengagement from the thorny problems facing postindustrial societies." But consumer empowerment is still empowerment, and while teaching people to hack their iPods may not be quite the moral equivalent of providing rice in the midst of famine, technical training packaged in a user-friendly format is hardly reconcilable with the elitism Chapman perceived in the early versions of Wired.

Another dimension of MAKE is the part you don't see if you're just flipping through the dead tree version. The relationship between web and print versions of make is an easy and fluid one—a model of web-print integration for which most publications with a web presence aim but few actually achieve. Not that this is particularly surprising--the topic inherently lends itself to web coverage and the team behind the publication is very web-savvy (Editor Mark Frauenfelder, is a Wired veteran and co-founder of bOINGbOING magazine and popular blog bOINGbOING.net).

The tendency to restrain or compartmentalize the content for fear that the web will cannibalize print, or vice versa, limits the potential for full media integration. MAKE doesn't seem to have that problem. The MAKE blog is a clear extension of the quarterly content with topically consistent projects and themes. And given the mook's how-to orientation, there's probably room for more even more web-based supporting content—i.e., a database of projects searchable by utility and component parts. In addition, each project in the mook has an associated URL for discussion.

The available web background eliminates the need to provide extra contextual information in the print version in order to make the material accessible to the reader. Thanks to the Internet, the availability of extra information, should the reader need it, is nearly unlimited. Rather than adding contextual qualifiers to potentially troublesome words and phrases, a wikipedia entry will do nicely. If "MacGyver" doesn't ring a bell, the inclination to explain it in text is reduced by the availability of a linkable web page explaining that "'MacGyver, or 'Mac,' as his friends call him, is a master of on-the-spot improvisation. He can use ordinary household objects to get himself and his companions out of trouble. All he carries with him is a Swiss Army knife and, occasionally, a roll of duct tape...He is fiercely loyal to his friends; his enemies will find him a clever, resourceful, and uncooperative opponent. Mac's most unusual trait is his fear of romantic commitment."

In that sense, MAKE is usable for both the subculture it ostensibly covers and the general audience whose attentions Wired '93 didn't quite capture. It's not yuppie bullshit. And it's a good thing, because we've had enough of that.

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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