Three zones

by Dries De Roeck on January 12, 2010

Over the last months I’ve mostly been trying to put down some boundaries to the research topics I’d like to cover. This has been far from easy, mostly because I tend to get distracted from one focus zone quite quickly and hover over to another one. I don’t see the need to stop doing that, but I do see the need to crystallize my research topics and ‘get down to business’.

What I have been able to do is identifying three zones in which I see enough depth to start digging deeper into. Obviously all zones are related to Do-it-Yourself in general, varying between a real practical level and a more philosophical & psychological level;

1. Matching “Digital DiY” with “DiY”

In the past, DiY was more associated with craft. It is the craft culture that is clearly making it’s “reborn” comeback in the digital realm. (Illustrated very well in P. Dormer’s ‘Culture of Craft’ and R. Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’) The first zone is all about the comparisons between these two interprations of DiY, the ‘classic’ one and the ‘reborn’ one.

Levels of DiY

Directly related to the first zone, I have the tendency to divide DiY into various levels. What these levels are, or what the precise dimensions are … I have no clue about yet. There is a good chance these levels are merely a re-interpretation of existing models, looked a from another point of view. Related research here is certainly the 4 levels of creativity by L. Sanders & P.J. Stappers and other ongoing research in domains related to creativity and participatory design.


Research related to learning is also a central theme within this first zone. Whatever way DiY is approached, digital or non-digital, there is always learning involved. Roughly there are three stages in a DiY related learning process to be identified;

  1. Buy
  2. Create
  3. Master

Each stage has an increased level of skill and knowledge. Also, these levels of skill can vary depending on the topic. Depending on things such as interest, context, motivation, etc.. someone will create something themselves or let others do it for them.

Related terms to the learning aspect in DiY are guidance and expertise (based on DIY:The rise of lofi culture by A. Spencer). I tried to plot various DiY related activities on a 2D axis, where guidance was the Y axis and expertise the X axis. The plotted activities were things like cooking, music making, publishing… all being things that some people either do completely themselves or are done by someone else for someone. It’s a bit hazy yet what the overall conclusions are, but I do have the feeling that making this comparison can contribute to the way the levels of DiY are interpreted. One thing that is very clear is that skill comes into relation with money pretty quickly. Also fun, joy and satisfaction are related terms that need further investigation.

2. How to enable people to create

A second zone is related more towards what factors enable, disable, motivate or stop people from creating things. Since creating or making things is ‘the’ central element related to DiY, getting to know why certain people seem more enabled or motivated than others is a crucial aspect.

New digital divide

A new kind of digital divide has been emerging for some time. In the past the divide was simply between people who use computers and people who don’t, but influenced by social and new media, the divide is becoming more complex. The so called ‘new digital divide’ is manifesting itself between digital media prosumers and consumers (indicated and summarised well by N.Hendriks in Netlash’s 2010 trendreport). Prosumers are people that contribute actively to communities, are creating their own media, uploading to facebook, sharing their geolocation, etc. The digital consumer is someone who watches digital media, but would be less likely to upload photos and videos.

The shift or change in this digital divide is remarkable because it shows that somehow groups of people are motivated to actively participate whilst other prefer to sit, watch and enjoy. Also it shows that it is possible for people to join in, if they want. Much like I covered in zone 1 of this post, being a prosumer is all related to skill, but it clearly relates to existing work on (psychological) motivation as well.


Linking back to the part on ‘learning’ in zone 1 of this post, in the world of DiY there seems to exist a create/frustrate dilemma. In many cases, people have ideas to make something, but once they want to start making it, frustration rises because it does not go according to plan and the whole creation process is abandoned. (I guess this is one of the reasons some people hate to buy stuff at IKEA, since the building part is something that could be a source of frustion by many)

This dilemma links to motivation theory, and feels like a subject that has been studied many times before. It will be interesting to see how this relation manifests itself further in the DiY context, a track to be continued.

Hard & Soft DiY

When speaking of “creating” it is very important to make the correct nuances. When the words create and object are used in the same sentence, people tend to think of tangible things. This is not always the case, therefore it is important to segment the ‘things’ someone can ‘create’. As a starting point, two (maybe three) major categories are;

Material based (hard)

‘Hard DiY’ should be interpreted as creating physical objects. A carpenter that creates a chair, a butcher that prepares meat, a blacksmith creating an iron fencing, your nextdoor neighbour preparing oven fries, etc. This is all related to craft in it’s original meaning, people making things themselves to physically use in their day to day lives.

Data based (soft)

In contrast to the physical stuff above, ‘Soft DiY’ is everything that has no tangible aspect to it. Traditional examples are the Linux community where people are creating software that they like to use themselves with their own philosophy. Many other online tools that promote services ‘in the cloud’ can be mashed up by people in order to create a personal service for them, examples here are daytum, yahoo pipes and many many more.

An important characteristic of ‘Soft DiY’ is that it can be collected in a passive way. For instance, when people walk around with a GPS enabled mobile phone, their location could be tracked without them having to do anything. This data could then be re-used in unexpected contexts, creating truly personalised experiences. It are these kind of experiences that could give people the feeling of ‘having done something themselves’ without actually having done any activity in a conscious way.

Mixed media

Thinking about the hard and soft DiY creations, recent developments in technology are more capable of combining the two. A nice example is the rise of geolocation and geotags. It is because of certain physical devices (iPhone, HTC Hero, GPS trackers,…) that people are capable of generating new types of datastreams.

Saying this, the link to the new digital divide mentioned earlier becomes very important – at the moment I have the feeling the real challenge is twofold in this zone;

  1. How can the so called ‘divide’ be bridged in order for the mainstream public to participate in both the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ realms of DiY?
  2. Should hard and soft DiY be reinterpreted for different user groups? Or how can the possible potential be made clear to a mainstream public?

3. Enabling people to think about technology in a non-tech way

The third zone is probably the most crystalised one, to some extend at least. In fact this zone can be regarded as just one aspect of the “mixed media” challenges brought forward before. Based on research done in Human Computer Interaction, one of the things that often pops up is the discussion whether design research can truly create new things (recently discussed by many based on a D. Norman posting). The way I currently relate this discussion to my research is, again, twofold;

  1. Once “technology” comes into the picture, many people immediately associate computers, screens, privacy issues, internet, files, complexity, etc… Technology as such should not be something people are afraid of, but something that should be embraceable and be integrated in people’s lives.
  2. In order for this to happen, it should be very clear what current technology has to offer in order for people to relate to any of it. People should be able to, discover, dream up and create things involving technology at their own pace.

Sensor swatches

In a couple of previous posts I mentioned the sensor boxes I have been making. One of the ideas I’m exploring is how taking abstraction from technology as such and offering it in a different packaging, as neutral as possible, can trigger people to understand the possibilities of technology without having to be confronted with high fidelity devices. It should be stressed that I do not want to force people to use technology, but I’m trying to bring technology down to the level of a non-tech artefact. With this ambitious goal I want to allow people to think about a sensor in the same way as they would think about a rubiks cube, or a wooden spoon.

Hackers & makers

Obviously there are already people doing exactly what I described above. Currently they are often referred to as hackers and/or makers, being people that create their own products to solve their own problems in their day to day lives. This goes from ‘hardware hacks’ like adding a piece of Sugru to a bicycle handle to coding their own wireless access point firmware. At the moment, most of this is community driven – an aspect I didn’t really talk about yet – it are factors like respect, teamspirit and passion that drives them.

So, in the above words I tried to outline my research tracks. I did an attempt at a first crystallisation of ideas, but I’m conscious that there is still some re-distilling to be done. During the next days and weeks my plan is to get a bit deeper into each of the proposed zones, link it deeper to existing research and try to define the research questions in a more refined way.

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