You could build your own car or your own TV but it would be rubbish. I suppose you could build pretty much anything (an aeroplane, a house, a speedboat…) if you wanted to – people do, don’t they – but a routine cost-benefit analysis (can I be bothered?) probably keeps that kind of silliness to a minimum. Complex, information-age consumer products are best left to the experts – high-tech manufacturing is now a race-to-the-bottom business. It’s all about volume, just-in-time, vanishing margins, consolidation and fugitive economies of scale.
Of course, there’s an exception to this rule and – importantly – the exception is the pivotal device for the whole era: the PC. People build their own PCs all the time and the PCs they build are not rubbish. In fact, quite often, they’re better, faster (much faster) and cheaper than the off-the-shelf variety. A benign collision of standardisation, commodisation and the strange voodoo of Moore’s Law means that you can assemble your own PC from the best parts available for about $5 more than buying one from Dell or HPaq or Packard Bell (or Walmart or Tesco for that matter). Of course, you’ll need to belong to the hyper-evolved geek sub-species with tiny Phillips screwdrivers for fingers but you really won’t need to be Einstein or even a proper engineer.
The nice people at O’Reilly have identified a promising market in the self-build crowd – Building the Perfect PC is not their first DIY book and it won’t be their last. This one’s like a Haynes Manual or a particularly practical recipe book. Many terrifying, flash-lit photographs and a relentlessly practical, can-do tone of voice are going to keep this book out of the NY Times bestseller list indefinitely but those same factors might just spread the self-build habit beyond its natural Practical Electronics audience and that has to be a good thing. I think it’s probably important that, while the super-rich and super-crazy are building manned orbiters, the moderately technologically-engaged and the simply curious are building their own stupidly over-specced and over-clocked computers down here on the planet’s surface.
I really don’t think I’m ready to glue a heatsink to my CPU or to set up two hard drives for RAID 1 but I really like the fact that there are people out there ready and willing to do just that. 400 years ago a small band of geeks fixated on a new and more efficient way of reproducing ideas called printing. Problem by problem they figured out how to distribute written culture to an ever wider audience. The hardware geeks may not change the course of human culture but they’re in the same territory – in their sheds and back rooms they’re fearlessly re-engineering and improving upon the 21st Century’s most basic infrastructure. I’m really quite excited to see where they’ll take us.
(A Google search for “build your own” produces 4,140,000 results!)