Mass Geek

Easy access to detailed information and pro-quality tools means nearly anyone can become expert in nearly anything. The future belongs to these Mass Geeks: global communities joined by obsessive interest, demanding highly tailored experiences.

Last Updated August 18, 2014

Nature is the Original Maker

If Mass Geek had to pick a manifesto, it would probably be the Maker’s Bill of Rights. First developed in 2005 by Make Magazine, this brief, to-the-point set of statements about the way things ought to be in a maker-centric world crystallized an entire movement’s motivations and expectations, and brought phrases like “Screws are better than glues” into mainstream conversation.

Some of these principles might be much older, though -- millions of years old, in fact. Sherry Ritter and Gretchen Hooker of the Biomimicry Institute have been compiling a set of rules called Life’s Principles, that aims to distill some basic principles that living things use to solve problems in the grand evolutionary scheme. And many of those rules have close counterparts in the Maker movement. Sharing information, standardizing practices and upcycling, it turns out, are common practice in the natural world, prompting Ritter and Hooker to write a fascinating reflection on the parallels between making and biomimicry.

Read the article at Make Magazine, and explore Life’s Principles at


For Hardware Startups, a Source of Cash and Insight

Launching a new piece of hardware is fundamentally different from a website, app or software package – while both demand creative insight and functional expertise, physical products have to deal with issues of manufacturing and distribution that can be very complicated, and very expensive. For decades, this has limited the ability of small entrepreneurs to launch technologically complex hardware, even while tiny teams of coders and designers have given the world an astounding diversity of digital products. A recent research effort by CB Insights suggests that crowdfunding sites–especially Kickstarter and Indiegogo–are starting to change that. Today, the success of hardware products like Oculus Rift, Ouya and Pebble show that crowdfunding offers more than just a source of capital, but also a kind of “audition,” that lets entrepreneurs (and future investors) test out a concept’s viability before sinking too much of their own money into it.

The full CB Insights report is online, or read The Verge’s summary. (Image via Wikimedia.)

Automatic (Congressional Transparency) for the People

Wikipedia is today’s reference of choice, and its crowdsourced nature needs no further introduction – even the US government uses it! Software developer Ed Summers recently developed a simple scraper program that tweets whenever changes to Wikipedia originate from Capitol Hill’s ISP address, making the world’s first automated Congressional watchdog. Government employees are the source of Wikipedia edits on all sorts of things, it turns out, from Choco Tacos to conspiracy theories on the original moon landing. Last week Wikipedia banned edits from the US House of Representatives’ location for ten days, due to “persistent, disruptive changes.”

Read more at the BBC, or check out the CongressEdits Twitter feed to see what Uncle Sam’s been up to.

Everyone’s an Illustrator

In the annals of software design, it would be hard to name a package that’s more profoundly democratized visual production than Adobe Illustrator. There have been dozens of other graphics editors, of course, but Illustrator’s launch in 1987 marked a clear break in graphic design, page layout, art, and the business of image creation. Before Illustrator, it was all French curves, rubdown text and hand kerning tables; after Illustrator, anyone with a decent PC and a willingness to learn by trial and error could create a convincing poster or print publication. Terry Hemphill’s recent mini-documentary “The Adobe Illustrator Story” chronicles the software’s invention, and follows the radical reinvention of an industry in its wake. It’s fascinating as a piece of design history and a milestone in modern DIY, but also as a statement on how much DIY has changed our perception of what’s interesting: after all, how appealing would a documentary software have been back in 1987?

Watch “The Adobe Illustrator Story” at Vimeo, or read the summary at FastCo Design.

A Boy’s Map

All open source and user-generated services have their limits, typically a function of the size of the group collaborating. Not always, though. Boundless, an open source mapping software that relies on its users to fill in business and point of interest locations, illustrates a peculiar case. Boundless’s OpenStreetMap has been developed with the help of a huge base, but the users are overwhelmingly young men. That meant an overabundance of strip clubs and take-out food locations, and no day care centers. Geospatial representations notwithstanding, other gender biases will surely come to light as women around the world continue their embrace of technology.

Fastco has the story.

Clone It Yourself

Access to cutting-edge technology has always been a limiting factor for institutionally-based scientists; for startup businesses and hobbyists, experimenting with world-class equipment was simply an impossibility. Silicon Valley-based Transcriptic is set to change that, offering genotyping, cloning and biobanking for hire at its fully automated robotic laboratory. The online lab means geography is no obstacle, and because equipment runs 24 hours a day, prices are low: a simple cloning experiment costs roughly the same as dinner and a movie. CEO Max Hodak says “Transcriptic frees up researchers to focus on the creative aspects of scientific discovery that drive important medical advances and make critical discoveries possible.”

Re/code has more.

Making China

China is undergoing a maker movement of its own, and things are different there: XinCheJian (New Factory) founder David Li says “...we’re closer to the supply chain,” and “[e]veryone knows someone who works in manufacturing.” That means ramping up from hobbyist to small business owner is faster and easier than anyplace else. This opens the possibility of more Chinese design for China, and everywhere else: the size of China’s population and its unmatched large-scale fabrication and logistics capacities might mean as its makers go, so goes the world. Local governments are already taking note, encouraging hackerspaces and incubators, and Beijing is thus far tolerating large maker-themed gatherings.

Bloomberg Businessweek has the article.

Just a Dude and His GoPros

Startup film company Permagrin has rigged up 15 GoPro cameras into a semi-circular homemade array, and the results are impressive. Founder Marc Donahue manages Matrix-style stop-motion effects on a (comparatively) tiny budget, no green screen or wires required. This brings to mind a certain man and his GoPro and his trombone, or the young lady who slapped hers onto a hula hoop at Burning Man, and points to the endless creative capture possibilities as this technology gets ever-smaller, cheaper and more durable. Rob Walker was – as usual – well ahead of the curve on this, and wrote an illuminating essay in 2012 on why ubiquitous smartphones aren’t going to do in imaging-only devices anytime soon. GoPro, Lytro and the persistence of Polaroid all seem to suggest he’s right.

Youtube has the video.

Coding is Fundamental

Literacy is essential to our understanding of contemporary society. The language of computers is becoming equally indispensable though, and Tasneem Raja, Interactive Editor for Mother Jones, thinks coding will be the new literacy: “[u]pending our notions of what it means to interface with computers could help democratize the biggest engine of wealth since the Industrial Revolution.” This isn’t a new idea necessarily, but one whose time has come, as computing moves further and further away from its open-source, amateur-friendly roots. To paraphrase philanthropist Tatiana Schlossberg, literacy is a tool, not a privilege. Worldwide literacy didn’t reach 84% without tremendous organized effort, and the push to increase fluency in code will take more of the same. Raja cites some encouraging efforts thus far, like Black Girls Code.

Read the whole article (be forewarned, it’s a long one) at Mother Jones.

You Can Hack Our Furniture, But Not Our Name

To DIYers and itinerant designers who delight in subverting the manufactured landscape, has been both a delightful resource and a source of community. There’s always been a certain satisfaction in reshaping a LACK end table or BILLY shelf on your own for some unintended use, but knowing that thousands of others were doing the same thing, and codifying the best ways to go about it was comforting and encouraging. IKEA, unfortunately, doesn’t exactly see it that way. Citing trademark infringement, the Swedish fast furniture manufacturer has demanded the site drop any reference to IKEA from its name, and threatened legal action if refused. Ikeahackers quickly capitulated, and will shift domains shortly, but the real victory may be in the fact that a bunch of tinkerers in their garages got one of the world’s most valuable brands to even notice them at all.

FastCoDesign has the article, and is still active if you’d like to poke around.