I’m putting this up as a provocative idea:
Did DIY kill expertise?
DIY has always been a part of my cultural experience. As I grew up I saw hardware shops go from nothing more than a dingy hole in the wall to gleaming sparkling palaces adorned in fluro paint, tiki torches and outdoor furniture. The crowds throng to these place in such numbers that here in Australia they have even spawned their own cuisine (the Bunnings sausage) and aesthetic (the line art catalogue and the iconic red and green).
It seemed to start on television. “Lifestyle” became a genre of show, starting off with the first generation of home cooks, gardeners, renovators and crafters. We were bombarded with messages about how easy this all was – we could have restaurant quality food at home, maintain lavish gardens that fed and nurtured us, turn our homes into verified palaces and adorn it with home-made-love-packed ornaments and furnishings. It was all so easy!
“We could do it all” was the promise. Alongside this promise came the products. The toolkits, the special ingredients, the PVA glue – all of the encoutrements that would take you from amateur to expert.
And at it’s heart that was always the problem – the DIY premise always relied on the products distilling success, not the people. You could do it all, if you had the right tools. There was never any accompanying teaching or supervision or wisdom on hand to help you out – simply buying the products and watching the highly edited 2 minute 37 second segment of the show was all you would ever need. You could just buy your way to being an expert.
There was never any concept of labour or knowledge being a part of the DIY culture, just a simplified equation — product = result. Missing was from the equation was labour, knowledge, skill, craftsmanship, wisdom and expertise. Why? Well it all has to do with time.
DIY has always been about the instantaneous, the off-the-cuff, the fast and the furious. It was all Backyard Blitz, 60 Minute Makeover and 15 Minute Meals that hid the real cost of the labour involved. By getting experts in to do the work – people that had trained and worked for decades, we were sold the illusion that this is all it would take. You could change your life in a day, and if you didn’t it it was because you didn’t have the right stuff. Not that you didn’t study or learn or practice — it was stuff you needed, not expertise.
What I see happening all around me, including my own field of design, is this culture of tools trumping expertise. That if you just give people tools, it is the tools themselves will transform people into experts.
And when you distill it like that the whole facade falls down. It’s like peering behind a movie set — there’s literally nothing behind it. It’s cynical and calculating. Behind the smiles and willingness to “help” is a profit making machine.
DIY has eroded the concept of expertise. We’ve been fed a lie — you can’t do it all, and maybe you just shouldn’t. There’s a reason for training and education – because experts are good things to have. Expertise is what got us where we are today, with all the electricity, transport, gadgets and technology, and why we are not surrounded by daily minor explosions caused by DIY mistakes. In societies that have become so time poor we need expertise rather than forcing more labour on ourselves. The DIY dream is a fantasy land where all of us have time to do it all; where there are infinite hours in the day, where we don’t have chores or kids or loved ones to tend to, where we don’t get tired or sick or need to maintain our own meat bags.
We need to stop thinking we can do it all and begin to delegate out — to actually trust others. To engage with those around us and not buy into this rabid individualism. We are a collective, a society, a tribe. We are not tribes of one.
Part of this is on us too. Maybe we’re not cut out to be a tiler, plumber or woodworker. Maybe we’re just supposed to just hone our own craft, to be the best self rather than all. To realise we are human and must live according to our own scale.
We are capable of achieving great things, but also finite things.