On Makers and Making

Recently, on an email list I’m subscribed to, this article on Salon by Debbie Chachra came up for discussion.
There are 3 points I took away from this article that are not firmly related but somehow became mixed up in this not-very-coherent rant against “Makers” and “Making.”
Firstly, as some people pointed out, there is a fair amount of verbal artillery lobbed towards Silicon Valley.  I don’t work there and don’t have first-hand experience with it, although I do have experience from my days working (on the East Coast) in the similar culture of hyper-optimistic engineering/IT/web development, but that’s a whole different issue that Debbie ties up en masse with the “Maker movement” which is not completely unfair because of Make Magazine’s home base in California but still not indicative of what has become a world-wide phenomena.  Making has taken on a different, local character as it spread across the globe, and the DIY ethos of Silicon Valley is certainly stamped on it but the rest of the cultural and capitalist/hierarchical baggage much less so.  We can certainly look at this movement separately from the male-dominated uber-nerd culture of Silicon Valley, which is a phenomena in itself and deserves its own separate analysis.
I’ve seen first-hand in my role as Course Leader for BA Design Products at Ravensbourne that “Maker” technologies and companies like Adafruit and Makerbot (and the like) are empowering women to take control of the making and design process.  I see it in the student work and the applications we’re getting – for our 2nd year lighting competition, 2 of the 3 finalists were young women and 3D printing on Makerbots and learning how to use CAD has gone a long way towards building their confidence and ability with manufacturing concepts, both desktop and production-level.
Second, the term “Maker” is a rallying cry and not representative of a deeper philosophical argument or even a coherent world view.  It provokes, but it’s also so inclusive as to be meaningless if everyone who “makes things” is included.  That’s fine to motivate people, but to dig deeper and critique it’s unbounded positivity and tie it into capitalist overproduction is pure vitriolic ranting – Make was about recycling, hacking, empowering the general public.  Anyone who read Make Magazine can see this.  There are better ways to attack the idea (for instance as being overly shallow) and the movement for, as pointed out, falling a bit too in love with STEM and not STEAM but that’s not in this article.
Thirdly, one of the strongest ideas in this essay is buried deep, but in my opinion, goes to the heart of it – that the American (but not strictly) public dialogue around the services that run our world (healthcare, government, education) has been steadily eroded to the point where it is mainly an argument about efficiency and cost.  We’re looking for the most efficient way to “deliver” education and government services and trying to get the costs of healthcare “down” but losing sight of the quality of experience, which is much harder to measure.  That’s changing, and I’d argue that behind the whole Trump movement is actually a working class that has fatally bought into the moral obligation of cost-efficiency and the value of “hard work” at the expense of the richness of human experience, including empathy for others who are also struggling.
The thing is, that third point doesn’t go against the Maker movement at all! By making the process of “making” more personal and enjoyable it’s actually addressing the imbalance of outsourced manufacturing.  3D printing, expensive and frustrating as it may be, returns quite a lot of power to those who can get access to it and sets up a much more personal and de-mystified relationship with manufactured objects and the whole process in general.  They’re definitely not cost-effective and efficient – for that, we’d all just shop at WalMart for mass-manufactured Chinese goods.  And 3D printing is just one facet of the movement.
I posted my counter-rant here on my blog because I feel very strongly about it.  Troll me if you wish, or engage me in a serious discussion if you’re so inclined.

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