Makerspaces – Why Now, Why Bother

How Mass Hacking Changes Everything

While trying to start up a makerspace in my home town of Rome, Georgia over the past year or so, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this trend called “the maker movement.” It boils down to people banding together in communities to start workshops for creating, inventing and tinkering. Admittedly, I have a tenancy to over-think things like this, and to seek meaning in places where I should just accept that “it just is.” Easier said than done for me.

The more I thought about it, the more I found myself saying (as my kids would put it)… really? With all the heaviness of our time — wars, recession, divided politics, and more –, why in the world would grown men and women be motivated to build $1,000 kits so they could produce $0.10 plastic trinkets, or to learn to solder, or to sew LEDs into their clothes? Heck, I didn’t even fully understand the reason I was doing it.

If I were predicting trends in 2009, I think I would have went in the other direction. I would have predicted that people would “get back to basics” by focusing on practical skills and relationships that could help them weather tough times. I would have predicted that online, virtual, social networks would continue chipping away at the utility of personal interaction. Community tinker-shops would have been somewhere near the bottom of my list of answers for the “what’s next” question.

What’s prompting this to happen now? I mean, most of the actors and props have been around for a really long time.  Tinkering has always existed. Workshops are nothing new. Thomas Edison had his Invention Factory. The Wright Brothers had their bike shop. We all knew at least one Doc, or maybe Wallace when we were growing up.  And when it came to workshops, the personal computer grew out of a computer club, which was influenced by a corporate research workshop. The web browser, social networks and lots of other transformative things grew out of college cliques and dorm rooms (just another type of workshop). Move along; nothing to see here.

But, why didn’t this maker-movement-thing start in 1894?  Or in 1906? Or in 1978?  Or in 1994? Why did a trip to a German hacker camp a few years ago by a few unknowns from a few U.S. cities kick off such a grass-roots desire for Americans to tinker?

As with most trends, it’s impossible to trace things back to a single cause. Most likely, a combination of several other trends have created an environment for things to develop the way they have. Here’s my stab at defining what (at least some of) those might be:

The Great Recession

Ah, the fall of 2008.  The ribbon cutting for one of the most difficult economic periods in generations. Looking back to other times, we know that societies pull together after traumatic events, periods of crisis and so on. Post-WWII was more than just an economic boom brought on by the industrial build-up; it was also a period where communities pulled together following such a traumatic, national-scale loss of life. And many of us experienced the feeling of national unity post 9/11, albeit short-lived.

These events also cause societies to re-prioritize what’s important to them — often resulting in a backlash against materialism after a cycle of prosperity (the 1990s dot-com bubble) or a cycle of excess (the 2008 housing bubble). So, at least for me, this one fits solidly as another factor that may be influencing the growth and timing of the maker movement. Tough times make for great neighbors.

Social Network Backlash

I need to take a quick detour here.  Like most parents, I sit around hand-wringing a lot about how much time my kids spend on Facebook and other social networks, or playing online social games. I am always torn between thinking I should place limits on them to create more balance, and thinking that doing so would actually put them at a disadvantage in a world where it seems that online, virtual communication is becoming the manifest destiny of relationships. The latter always wins out, and I admit to being the liberal parent on this one.

I see the advance of technology as being tied together with the advance of society; meaning that it seems social networking will dramatically alter how people communicate in the future regardless of how much I decide to limit or not limit my kids.  So just because my daughter has 700 shallow-online-friendships when I only had two or three deep-offline-ones “back in the day,” I think it would be wrong for me to force her to adhere to the social norms from my generation. That would be like parents in the 60s telling their kids to “turn off that awful Rock N’ Roll music!” Once the Beatles were out of the bag, it didn’t really matter what parents told their kids to listen to. And despite how ear-piercing it might have sounded to parents of that generation, the Beatles’ music went on to influence in some way virtually all the music we enjoy today.

Getting back to the maker movement — I think makerspaces are one of the best solutions to the dilemma of “social parenting.” Makerspaces encourage personal interaction, not just online interaction. Makerspaces encourage geographic-based communities, not just virtual ones. Makerspaces stimulate hands-on interaction with the physical world, as opposed to the virtual worlds of online, social gaming. The best part is, it’s not like forcing my kids to eat their vegetables; makerspaces are engaging venues that most kids are drawn to anyway. To experience this, go attend a Maker Faire and watch parents try to pry their kids away at the end.

I think these community workshops represent somewhat of a backlash from the last five years of the social networking era. I think people (including kids) are actually eager to return to more personal interaction after spending so much time at the keyboard and webcam. For me as a parent, the answer is not to take away and limit the online social world, but instead it is to introduce a more compelling offline world so they have alternatives.  The overemphasis on social networking over the past five years fits as another reason makerspaces may be spreading so quickly.

Convergence of Art and Technology

I’m no expert here, but it seems to me that art and technology for most of human history were pretty separate domains. But, during periods of dramatic advancement in either domain, the lines between them blurred.  For example, the dramatic advancement of art, literature, music,etc. in the 14th-17th century Renaissance gave us polymaths in both art and science like da Vinci, and also led to the scientific revolution beginning in the 17th century.

It’s not a stretch to think of the advancement of technology over the past 50 years as being equally profound. The Internet is often compared to the printing press in terms of its impact on mankind’s ability to spread ideas and information. In this context, it doesn’t seem surprising that we would find people with diverse interests in art, music, science — maybe even philosophy and religion — participating in the creation of makerspaces.

On a more practical level, the story of Pixar comes to mind. In that story, a traditionally artistic domain (animation) finds that, while its future was indeed threatened by technology in the short-term, the state of the art itself could be dramatically advanced through the use of technology in the long-term. The two worlds are now inseparable, but this didn’t happen without some disruption to lives and fortunes along the way. I’m sure the same could be said for music, film and other artistic domains. I guess I’m really making more of an argument here for creative destruction.

What if the world of, let’s say, fashion were to evolve in a similar way? If it did, we can predict that makerspaces would likely play an important role. That’s the one place I am aware of where intense experimentation in this areas is happening.

My basic point here is that in a world (and time) where art and technology are more converged, it seems natural that art and science-lovers on a hyper-local (community) level would seek out ways to interact with each other. Given that world-class universities don’t exist in every community to fill that need, makerspaces may be  becoming, if nothing else, a convenient alternative for people seeking a “renaissance social club.”

Decline of Manufacturing

Let’s face it. American manufacturing has been declining for decades. Globalism. Loss of jobs migrating to eastern nations. All that flat-world-jazz. Inevitably, we are left with a nation of people who still want to create things; to work with their hands; to produce something tangible. We must be a nation with a huge surplus of capacity and capability in this area- not to mention lots of pent-up desire.

I believe that America will cease being a nation of manufacturers over time, but that it can and will become the world’s greatest nation of makers. What’s the distinction? With manufacturing, the value and priority is placed on cost and efficiency. With making, the value and priority is on invention, innovation, design, engineering.  Apple is a maker, but not a manufacturer. It’s also one of the most highly valued companies in the world. While America is often referred to as a “once-great” industrial manufacturing nation, no-one ever challenges our dominance in inventing and designing products that the entire world wants to buy. Why not just go with that?

In debates on this, some people have said to me “oh, but we can’t abandon the middle class!” My answer to that is… who said we had to? There is no rule that so-called blue-collar workers are incapable of doing anything other than repetitive tasks and manual labor. Every American can be a maker; not just artists and engineers. It’s just that we have a tough time grasping the concept of a maker as a “job” today –which is surprising, given our roots as a farm-based society. We don’t think of making as a way to sustain oneself, but there are some amazing examples of how this is being done already.

Consider this. An ACNielsen study in 2006 concluded that “approximately 1.3 million sellers around the world use [selling stuff on] eBay as their primary or secondary source of income, with an esti­mated 630,239 in the United States.” During this same period, we know that lots of individual merchants and store-owners were struggling to survive, in part due to the entry of large, big-box retailers, malls and other trends. Isn’t it likely that many of these “offline merchants” became “online e-tailers?” This is the parallel I would draw with manufacturing. Isn’t it possible that millions of factory workers could transition from being manufacturers to being makers in this same way? Sure, this is unlikely to happen within a single generation, but not a bad nation-view for the long term.

There’s another reason I don’t think that predicting the death of manufacturing means abandoning the middle class. Personal fabrication. We’re on the verge of amazing developments that will put the tools to produce within the reach of local communities and individuals — in ways that haven’t existed for decades, if not centuries. The introduction of a new technology, or the distribution of an existing technology to the masses often creates new job sectors. 50 years ago, there was no such thing as an IT service job, and now it is one of the many important drivers for our economy. It’s hard to predict what will happen when powerful new technologies become democratized, but the impact is always profound.

Makerspaces are perfect laboratories for experimenting with a future like this. At a makerspace, you will rarely ever find anyone making more than one (the first) of anything. If an idea survives the experimentation phase, makers will immediately set out to find someone, somewhere else to have it produced in the required quantity. Great, now we just need to find an economics student who wants to do their dissertation on “the structure and feasibility of a tinker-based economy.” !

Summary

That’s my take on some of the reasons why we’re seeing such dramatic growth around makerspaces. There are likely many other factors involved, with most focused on some lowering of barriers to entry.  For example, certain tools of production like 3D printers, laser cutters and milling machinery are becoming cheap and accessible; the open source hardware movement is resulting in more individuals involved in the design process for products. I’m sure there are others I’m missing.

I’d love to hear from others on this topic. Happy making.