Ten Minutes with Mark Frauenfelder

Ten Minutes with Mark Frauenfelder

By - Posted Feb 09, 2005

Mark Frauenfelder believes we’ve entered a new age of tinkering. Even as we coast through the digital era, more and more people are cracking open their gadgets, hacking their appliances, and creating new gizmos. To further this phenomenon, the BoingBoing.net co-founder has helped launch a new endeavor, Make Magazine, as editor in chief. With the first issue now on newsstands, the quarterly “bookzine” offers loads of DIY projects, hacks, mods, and tips that anyone can tackle. It’s also holding a Makers Fair in March at the Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, where it’s inviting some modders to show off their coolest inventions. In this interview, Frauenfelder tells us why we all should start opening up our iPods to see what's inside.

What is Make Magazine?

Make is this magazine that we thought really needs to happen. We’ve noticed that people have been making things lately, and because of the Web they can share their ideas about all these cool things that they’ve made with technology. Prices have been dropping on technology – they always do – but a lot of people don't have the time to make these cool things, even if they could think of them. So this magazine gives people a way to have instructions on how to make all this kind of stuff. If you have a spare evening, spare weekend, or even a spare hour, there’s a project in Make Magazine that you can probably do in that amount of time. This is also a great place to showcase all the great things people are making in their basements and garages and back yards with the technology at hand – which is an amazing thing to see, how people are customizing things and making them better than just what they can get off the shelf.

Do you believe there’s been an increase in tinkering these days?

Yeah, I have definitely seen a huge upsurge and I would credit a lot of that with the Web. Because what happens is people will post their project – “Look at this cool amplifier I’ve made inside of an Altoids box.” – and then people will write to the person saying, “That’s cool, and here’s a way that I’ve changed it around so that it’ll also transmit wirelessly to your speakers.” Or other people will be inspired to do their own kind of thing. So you create these little communities of interest and it just explodes because you’re cross-pollinating ideas. It’s a real renaissance in a maker’s universe.

You’d almost expect the opposite effect in our digital age – that people wouldn’t mess with their increasingly solid-state gadgets.

I think both things are happening. Technology is cheap and you can usually buy a pretty good solution to whatever you want with some kind of solid-state black box. But there’s also just this joy in putting something together so that you have a basic understanding of what’s going on. In the ‘50s and ‘60s there were all these magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, and tons of how-to magazines, where people had a lot of fun putting things together. That’s a big part of the fun: making something and customizing it exactly the way you want it, making it look cool. Like, case modding is a perfect example – people want to put their own touch on their things. It’s kind of like with hot rod cars; people would fix up their cars to make them personal, and so you’re doing that with your personal technology, too.

Is it important to do your own hacks or projects in this digital age?

Yeah, I think it is important in that it gives a closer connection to the technology that’s around you, so that you can understand it and be more discriminating about it. Even if you don’t do the project itself, but read about how somebody else did it, that’s kind of an entertaining thing to do. It makes you understand a little bit more, so maybe the next time you buy something involving technology you can look at the specs sheet and know whether this is a desirable feature to have. So that kind of thing is very helpful.

How did Make get off the ground?

The publisher, O’Reilly, publishes technical books, and one of the founders, Dale Dougherty, started this series of books called the “Hacks Series:” Google Hacks, eBay Hacks. Each book has a hundred neat things you can do in a certain area, and so he thought, "Why not turn this into a color magazine and open it up to a more general audience?" We can let people know about this cool world and give them a way to get involved without investing a ton of time.

How will the magazine interact with Make's website?

I think we’re going to have some really cool stuff on the website. First of all, we have a blog that is being run by Phil Torrone, who’s a really great hacker in his own right – he’s always putting together things with his iPods, Wi-Fi, audio and video. So he’ll be talking about projects that he makes and reporting on other people’s projects. He’s going to be doing Podcasts where he interviews makers from all over the world. And then we’re also going to have a section where people can post their own projects; we have this really nice template where you can insert the steps and upload photographs. After you follow the instructions and hit submit, boom – there’s a really nicely formatted and designed project for other people to see and comment on. You can actually click on the pictures and add your own comments on there using a new technology we’ve licensed. The website will be an essential component to the magazine.

What kinds of D.I.Y projects would you consider great for Make?

The ones that are really interesting to me are ones that aren’t actually starting something from scratch, like with a box of resistors or IC chips just dumped onto a table. They’re ones that take existing technology and rev them up to do things, like the card stripe reader that we have here [in the first issue]. It takes an ordinary card stripe reader device that you can buy on eBay for $5, and here’s a simple way to wire it up to your PC and download some free software so that you can take your credit cards and drivers license and swipe them through the reader to see all the information stored on your cards. The other one is the $14 Steadicam project so you can take action shots without the camera jittering. For me, that’s what makes an interesting project. And we do have some starting from scratch, but those tend to take more time and you can make a lot more mistakes when you do them.

What kind of audience do you think your magazine is going to reach?

I see it in two groups: For younger people who live and breath technology and tweaking things, it’s second nature for them to crack something open and see how it works. We have reached out to them to be the contributors and the creators of the magazine. And then the second audience, I think, consists of people who tend to be a little bit older, pretty involved with a career or family, and they really like technology but they don’t have as much time as the younger side.

Which segment do you fall under?

I probably fall in the second one – I’ve got two kids, and besides doing Make I’ve got a couple of books that I’m writing, I write columns for magazines, so I’m lucky if I get two hours on the weekend to do something. I’m still working on the camera project myself – if I get that finished by spring, I’ll be happy.

Mark Frauenfelder co-founded bOING bOING magazine and the Boing Boing Blog. He's the design columnist for Mobile PC magazine and a contributing editor to TheFeature. Right now, he’s working on two upcoming books, The Illustrated History of Computers and World’s Worst, about the worst things on Earth. He’s also an illustrator and animator.

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