There have always been guitarists who seek to improve their instruments. Richie Blackmore with the scalloped frets and the tape-recorder preamp, Hendrix and his collaboration with Roger Mayer, Pete Townshend and his request to Jim Marshall for more power, Danny Gatton and his customized Teles, Carlos Santana and the early Boogies, Les Paul and lots of cool gadgets...
One difference today is that a lot of these tweaks have become commodity items rather than true DIY (or collaborative) projects. The spirit of inventiveness has been replaced by the fervor of consumerism.
The other difference today is that there are a lot more guitarists brought together by the internet despite their geographical separation. That in itself has been instrumental in creating today's market for MI gear.
It does seem that musicians' goals are different today. I started playing almost fourty years ago and was always somewhat (not enough at times, I'd argue now) more interested in how music worked than how my gear worked. Don't get me wrong, I still know plenty about gear; that's an important part of the puzzle. But somehow I managed to figure out early on that the creation of music is not primarily a technological exercise.
Some players who are younger than me are open to exploiting the latest technology to make music, which is cool. These are the people who will eventually come up with the next big thing. What I don't understand is the players who are seeking to replicate decades-old sounds using modern technology; that seems to me to be a big step backward musically and a poor use of the technology.