The Re-Emergence of DIY vs. Big Organizations by Johnny Lee

Today we have a special guest post The Re-Emergence of DIY vs Big Organizations by Johnny Lee. The post is here on MAKE in its entirety with permission. It’s an excellent read for makers, innovators, and any company looking to harness the smarts of the tinkerers out there. Johnny Lee is best known for his Wiimote hacking, which sparked thousands of projects. And most recently, I worked with him (and Ladyada) on the Kinect hack + bounty. He recently left Microsoft Research and is now at Google.

I have actually put quite a bit of thought toward this topic having recently jumped back and forth between the DIY hobby culture, serious academic research, and massively funded commercial product development. I’ve had the fortune to observe people trying to make new and interesting things at extremely different scales — from $100 budgets to $100,000,000 budgets.

One thing that I find very consistent: good ideas come from anywhere. The biggest factor in predicting where good work will come from is “how much does this person actually care about what they are working on?” In fact, big budgets and a sense of entitlement can actually hinder the emergence of interesting ideas. Having the expectation to do really great work can lead people or organizations to develop tunnel vision on “big” ideas, and miss out on smaller ideas that end up having a lot of impact or dismiss seemingly silly approaches that actually end up working.

There’s a really great TEDx talk by Simon Sinek that touches on this. He actually brings up a number of great points in his talk, but the one I want to highlight here is his anecdote about Samuel Pierpont Langley vs. the Wright Brothers in pursuit of powered flight. Langley represented the exceptionally well-funded professional research organization, and the Wright Brothers were the scrappy passionate pair of DIYers. Today, we now know the Wright brothers as the ones who created the first airplane, and most have never heard of Langley. Big investment is not a very strong predictor of valuable output. But an individual’s willingness to continue working on the same problem with very little to no pay is a good predictor.

The great thing about the hacker community is that, generally, most of them fall into the latter category. Independent developers and hobbyists care enough to spend their own money to work on the projects they believe in. As a result, I’m finding that the delta in the quality of ideas from a well-funded research group and the independent community (in aggregate) is getting smaller and smaller by the month. Increasingly, the best “hobby projects” surpass the quality level of “true research” work in the same area. This startling lack of contrast (or sometimes inversion) becomes laughably evident when I am reviewing academic/scientific work submitted for publication on a project that uses Kinect, and then the newest Kinect hack pops up on Engadget that simply beats it hands down.

Now, I could simply make a curmudgeonly claim that the quality of professional/research/academic work has gone down. But, I actually don’t think that’s true. In my opinion, what is happening is that the quality of independent projects are getting better — fast — which, I think, resonates with this observation of a “DIY Revolution.”

But, why is this re-emergence happening now? Wasn’t is just a few years ago people were lamenting about how “black boxed” consumer products had gotten, and that the good old days where you could open up a product and futz with the innards in a meaningful way were gone? What’s changed to cause this apparent rebirth?

I have a theory.

My Theory About the Re-Emergence of the DIY Community:
In the 90s and early 2000s, Moore’s law was absolute king. The primary deciding factor in purchasing an electronic product was simply how fast it was. This meant an intense focus on tighter and tighter integration of components and all the functionality was disappearing into tiny little black chips that could not be accessed nor modified by mere mortals. But now, people barely talk about raw “megahertz” or “megabytes” anymore. General purpose computers have gotten “fast enough.” We now want specialized kinds of computers: one that fits in our pocket, plays games in 3D, one shaped like a tablet, one that goes in our car, one that can go underwater, or get strapped your snowboard and not break. We have reached a surplus in computing power that makes it affordable to build (and buy) devices for smaller and smaller needs. Our imagination for what to do with computing has simply not kept up with Moore’s Law. So, we find more uses for more modest amounts of computing power. But, what does this have to do with the DIY community?

A byproduct of having such an immense surplus in computing is that the tools you can buy within a hobbyist budget have also gotten exponentially better in just the past 3-4 years, while the improvements in professional tools have been more modest. The difference in capability between the electronics workbench of a professional engineer and a hobby engineer is getting really, really small. Kinect is an overwhelming example of this. The cost of a high quality depth camera dropped nearly two orders of magnitude overnight. As a result, hobbyists are out-pacing many professionals in the same domain simply due to sheer parallelism. Perhaps not as dramatically, but this is happening with nearly all genres of electronic and scientific equipment. One day, maybe we’ll see backyard DIY electron beam drilling for nano-machining.

When it is no longer about who has the most resources, it’s about who has the best ideas. Then, it becomes a pure numbers game:

Take 10,000 professional engineers vs. 1 million hobbyists with roughly equivalent tools. Which group will make progress faster? Now, consider that you have to pay the 10,000 engineers $100K/year to motivate them to work, and the 1 million hobbyists are working for the love of it. Does that change your answer? Even if it doesn’t, you have to concede that there does exist a ratio that will make the output of these two groups equal. It’s merely a matter of time.

If you follow me through this argument, which I won’t claim to be bulletproof but which does explains the trends we are observing quite nicely, then this has an interesting implication on organizations that are currently funding big research groups. When it’s simply a matter of who has the best ideas, it’s tough to try to employ enough people to get good coverage. You could try to spend a lot of energy on trying to find the “best” people, but that’s about as challenging as predicting the stock market. Some inventors simply go “dry” of good ideas and end up not providing a good lifetime return on investment (I fully expect this to happen to me someday — I just hope it happens later rather than sooner).

So to me, this suggest three options for big exploratory organizations:

  1. Start tackling more resource-intensive problems: things that fundamentally cannot be done today for a few thousand dollars, but at some basic level require materials, tools, energy, computation, space, manpower that are impossible to obtain at a hobby level. The LHC and space programs are good examples of this. Even if the end goal may be of debatable near-term economic value, there is a high probability that unexpected derivative technologies/projects will bring commercial/educational benefits elsewhere.
  2. Empower everyone within your organization to do exploratory work. The tools are cheap and “research groups” have no monopoly on good ideas. It’s hard to know where lightning will strike, so make sure you encourage it anywhere and hope you haven’t missed a spot.
  3. Partner with the outside developer community. There is plenty of precedence, where using the resources you have to channel the creative power of the masses through the platforms you control can bring a tremendous amount of value, if done in an organized manner. It’s the rocket fuel that powers companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Groupon to go from non-existence to dominating entities in less than three years. The same can absolutely happen with traditional physical electronics and other consumer goods. It simply requires treating your customers as potential partners, rather than assuming they are all potential predators.
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