“Where are my turnips?” the anarchist author Hakim Bey famously demanded of the Internet in 1991, unimpressed with purely digital abundance and holding out for benefits a little more material. He’s still waiting for those turnips, one hears, but perhaps at this late date he’d be willing to settle for a quinzee? The quinzee is a makeshift house of snow, popular among Canadian campers and easier to build than an igloo. And while it’s true you cannot order one online, you’ll find detailed, well-illustrated, friendly instructions for constructing your own at instructables.com—where hundreds of users have uploaded similarly helpful how-tos on making everything from rubber-mat laptop cases to coffee-table aquariums to the amazing hit-and-run urban-beautification device known as the LED Throwie, a tiny magnetic light suitable for scattering by the handful across the high metallic surfaces of a dreary city nightscape.
The site’s design team, Squid Labs, calls it “step-by-step collaboration,” and I suspect even Hakim Bey might call it a start. The explosion of online do-it-yourself walk-throughs is perhaps the most concrete case to date of the Internet’s potential for reshaping our material world, and Instructables’ crisp, thoughtful design highlights the Web-specific strengths that make it so. Project books have always been capable of spreading DIY wisdom around, of course, but the ubiquity of digital cameras (a pic is worth a thousand instructions) and interactive social software have lowered the threshold for publishing your own projects just about to the ground. No big deal, maybe, but look at it from the bottom-line perspective of the transnational corporate empire: By making it easier to DIY, sites like Instructables are lowering the transaction costs of opting out of commercial culture and weakening the value proposition in yet another trip to Target. And really, who likes turnips anyway? Here, have a Throwie.