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MythBusters and the Joy of Technology
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MythBusters and the Joy of Technology

In more than one hundred episodes, the hosts of Discovery Channel’s MythBusters have made many strange and amazing devices. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, along with Tory Belleci, Grant Imahara, and Kari Byron, have built a two-story Newton’s cradle, a salami-powered rocket, and a pair of metal teeth that could catch a bullet in midair. In each episode, the hosts take apart and transform familiar objects, raise everyday activities to absurd scales, and create things that no one has made before. As they build and test these devices, they laugh with the joy of technical practice. MythBusters presents a vision of technology in which the material world can be endlessly transformed by playful activities. This vision is part of a long tradition of enthusiastic amateur engagement with technology and also resonates with the vision of technology inherent in the contemporary maker movement.

Each one-hour episode of MythBusters is structured around testing several “myths.” These myths are drawn from urban folklore, common sayings, and movie scenes. Would a bullet hole in an airplane window cause the plane to explode? Can helium balloons lift a person in a lawn chair? Could a car drive with square tires? The MythBusters create a series of tests to investigate different aspects of the phenomena. They start with small-scale versions before moving on to full-scale tests. Episodes often end with a larger-than-life test, featuring spectacular explosions and crashes. After the series of tests, they declare the myth “busted,” “plausible,” or “confirmed.” They have kept this effective formula over the ten years that the show has been on the air.

Though the show is motivated by the myths, the process of building the apparatuses occupies most of each episode. Through the depiction of the process, MythBusters presents a vision for interacting with the material world in which broad technical mastery is achievable, commercially available [End Page 482] objects can easily be transformed, and almost nothing is impossible. The hosts of MythBusters are technical polymaths. During most builds, they move between a wide variety of techniques. They weld structural steel, machine intricate parts, carve foam into realistic forms, and wire complicated electronics. Though each of these skills is associated with a different specialized profession, the hosts of MythBusters seem to be able to pick up these and many other skills. In the process of building their testing apparatuses, the hosts also show a world in which everyday objects can be easily transformed and modified. They have cut the engines out of cars, made a washing machine spin with deadly power, and rigged a bus with remote control. In the world of the show, the familiar material world takes on an extraordinary plasticity. Finally, the build sequences suggest that, to the hosts, nothing is impossible. The projects they set out to complete are well beyond what most people would consider possible, yet by the end of each episode, the hosts achieve the goal. This open-ended world of possibility runs through every project the MythBusters undertake.

The emotional resonance of this mode of interacting with the technical world is ultimately more important than the specific processes and techniques involved in the show. Though MythBusters focuses on making and transforming the material world, it is not an instructional show. The show explains the principles behind what the hosts build, but it does not explain how they are made. Glimpses of the process are shown, but many steps are skipped and no instruction is given on how to use tools and machines. The show is also peppered with warnings to the viewers not to try these tests at home, and key aspects are explicitly hidden during some of the more dangerous builds.

Rather than dwelling on the details of the process, MythBusters focuses on the emotional experience of technical activity. Many builds follow a similar pattern. The hosts sketch out ideas, construct prototypes, discover problems, redesign, and eventually succeed. These stages are represented by scenes that capture the feeling of the activity rather than accurately depicting the details. For example, during the design phase Adam and Jamie will often be shown sitting...