The Madness of Mass-Making

How co-option of the Maker Movement would drive us to innovate at all cost

Detroit Maker Faire 2011

The Maker Movement is gyrating, scooting, hovering, and paddling into a public place near you. Making is everywhere. With its maker faires, maker camps, maker spaces, maker magazines, maker catalogs, maker manifestos and maker clubs, it is even maneuvering into our public schools. Why the sudden ubiquity? One factor is technological: the consumer-market availability of tools like 3-D printers and microcomputers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi have put the means of design and fabrication into the hands of individuals. Fabrication, which has belonged to industry since the early 19th century, now returns to the people. Hence, Making has become “popular” in both the cultural and the socio-political sense.

Maker culture is fundamentally the democratization of technology-enabled fabrication. The results so far include innovations not typically incentivized by mass production. My favorite examples are designs created by students at an innovation school in Cambridge, MA. Makers create for audiences of many sizes: for large gatherings, for niche markets, for individuals with unique challenges, for local communities, for loved ones, and/or for themselves. And unlike global manufacturers motivated solely to optimize profit and market share, Makers may be motivated by a sense of compassion, ethics, beauty, prestige, challenge or playfulness.

Mr. Bean, a Maker

Even those who do not consider themselves to be Makers may realize the clear benefits of DIY design and fabrication by occasionally dabbling. When we Make, we express ourselves in material. When our dreams and visions are made real by our own hands, the results can be ingenious, beautiful, powerful, and inspiring. We could certainly use more ingenuity, more art, more innovation, and more design thinking to solve the world’s ugliest, most stubborn problems.

Making may even be a great tool in education. Learning-by-doing, which includes learning-by-making, is engaging and more effective than traditional instructional methods. MIT understands this. (In fact, MIT’s motto — Mens et Manus — means “mind and hand.”) Its Office of Experiential Learning offers specially designed courses and labs that emphasize doing and making as a means of preparing students for STEM careers. (And we seem to really want STEM education for our students these days—perhaps that is because jobs in STEM fields may be the only interesting ones to have in the future).

Because there is so much that is good about Making, it may seem curmudgeonly to critique it. But I do have a bone to pick with the commodification and co-option of Making, which increase pressure for all to become Makers, which I will call “mass-Making.”

Four Forethoughtful Questions About “Mass-Making”

Yes, Making can be rewarding. Does that mean we should all aspire to become Makers? Are the individual benefits reason enough to spend hundreds to thousands on 3-D printers, woodworking classes, Maker kits and Maker summer camps for the kids?

The Maker Movement Manifesto declares that Making is fundamental to humanity, and that we all ought to be Makers. (As it happens, the manifesto’s author runs a company that can show you how to become a Maker, for an annual membership fee.) The Manifesto also contains a long list of the kinds of things a Makerspace needs to have, including a laser cutter, 3-D printers, sheet metal fabrication equipment, oscilloscopes, and computers with various software like Autodesk Inventor and Photoshop. Those cost of access to all those tools adds up for members of a Makerspace, who can expect to pay upwards of $100 in monthly fees, plus extra for materials or classes. Making is expensive. If you wish to turn eyes at a Maker Faire, you will have to spend a pretty penny. This leads to an important question:

Who will have access to high quality materials and tools in mass-Making, and who will get left behind?

A Kenyan farmer

Rural farmers in developing countries like Ethiopia, DIYers out of necessity, might be perplexed by the contemporary Maker Movement. They do not spend idle hours making plastic simulacra of cartoon characters, fire-breathing moving sculptures, or LED-laced fashion accessories. Nor do they have the resources to do so.

A typical maker space. If you’re an aspiring Maker, have plenty of storage space for all the stuff you will accrue, and extra garbage disposal capacity for your waste.

The Maker Movement depends on the contingency of abundance. Industry relies on the same contingency of cheap resources and energy to mass produce consumer goods without regard to negative externalities like pollution and diminishing nonrenewable resources.

If we had unlimited resources and perfect recycling, the proliferation of more stuff from mass-Making would not be problematic. While some Maker materials like Arduinos and Raspberry Pi’s can be reused, other materials like polymer, wood, sheet metal, and fabric are not easily reused nor recycled. In theory, some 3-D printing materials (largely petrolium-derived polymers) are recyclable. In practice, until we institute changes in how the US codes such polymers, recycling capability cannot even begin to approach our expanding waste production. Because our present recycling infrastructure is not set up to cope with the types of waste generated by Makers, it ends up in landfills like most other consumer waste. This is unfortunate, because not all of the stuff we Make really matters.

What do we do with all the STUFF generated by mass-Making? Is mass-Making the best use of the world’s resources?

Photo by Natasha Lomas of Tech Crunch, “The 3-D Printing Landfill of Opportunity”

In “Why I am Not a Maker,” educator Debbie Chachra highlights the inherent sexism of the Maker Movement. She points out that Making follows the historical tradition of valuing artifacts and their related activities (invention, acquisition, discovery, etc.), largely the occupations of privileged men. By omission, the Maker Movement devalues those whose work does not chiefly entail making stuff. This includes teachers and caregivers, who tend to be women. The Maker Movement’s goal — to have everyone, including girls, assert themselves as Makers — effectively diminishes the perceived worthiness of vital services like teaching and care. Thus it reinforces a historical tendency to exploit the “invisible infrastructure” of those who are inclined toward (or relegated to) work that nurtures, sustains and heals.

Early 20th century editorial cartoon on capitalism

Many Makers aspire to become entrepreneurs. We should be concerned about Mass-Making’s congruency with capitalism. Capitalism exerts pressure to exploit labor, natural resources and new technologies, accord wealth and power to winners, and tolerate significant wealth disparities. Today, wealth is highly concentrated among lucky winners, while the rest of us—if we are fortunate enough to have paying jobs—face wage stagnation, heavy workloads, budget cuts, and long hours (particularly in education and health care).

Perpetual innovation precludes other worthy pursuits for the faint hope of gloried returns to the individual innovator. Our economic system incentivizes significant speculation to find the next big thing-that-everyone-needs. Most bets lose, and negative externalities accrue. The top reason for startup failure, according to CB Insight’s analysis of startup postmortems, is making products no one wants. But the rewards are significant for the winners. As a result, eight million Americans (11% of private sector workers) continue plugging away at new ventures—most of which are aimed at marginally improving the lives of wealthy consumers. Consider the opportunity cost: those same resources and human capital could be aimed at developing renewable energy solutions or safe water infrastructure to help stabilize local economies in the developing world.

The Flying Tailor

Mass-Making shifts the cost burden of innovation to individuals (and their families and communities). For every Maker who goes to market with a great new product, there are hundreds of people who try and fail— individuals who could have spent their time doing other things. For every innovation that comes from mass-Making, to be licensed or bought out by a conglomerate, there will be countless failures. Who carries the cost of those failures in mass-Making?

Whose interests are served by mass-Making’s production bias? Who incurs the opportunity costs?

If we are not yet feeling the competitive urgency to out-Make one another, perhaps patriotic duty will sway us. President Obama’s Nation of Makers Initiative would like Americans to become Makers so that we might “expand manufacturing entrepreneurship, and unlock new American industries.” The aspirational boon to manufacturing and industry (which presumably includes an industry based on commodifying Making) may explain its support among engineering schools, technology titans like Google, and fabrication companies. It appears to be in our national strategic and economic interests to become Makers as well. The Department of Homeland Security, the US Army, the US Navy, the Patent and Trademark Office and NASA are supporters of the Nation of Makers Initiative, among others. If all goes as envisioned by the Initiative, mass-Making will be institutionalized in schools, libraries, museums, city and community spaces, colleges and universities, and workplaces.

Note the seriousness with which the country takes Making. The Maker Movement started out as a playful, grassroots, even counter-cultural movement. Why are federal agencies getting involved? After the announcement that DARPA would fund the creation of Makerspaces in 1000 high schools, the Annenburg School’s Kevin Driscoll highlighted the historical dependence by defense agencies on talent and innovation DIY cultures. We’ve seen in education, justice, human services and other programs that wherever dollars flow down from federal and other sources, accountability flows up. Funding is a lever for driving desired outcomes, which could include what we Make and how many of us are Making them. Suddenly, Making sounds like very serious business.

If the Maker Movement becomes co-opted as a pipeline for STEM talent into industry and defense, how might it alter what we Make?

Wearable tech enhances soldier performance in Darpa’s Warrior Web Project

Commentary

As one who clings dearly to an intellectual heritage in constructionist learning theory, I feel conflicted by the Maker Movement. Learning-by-doing, which includes learning-by-making, is essential in education. However, I have serious concerns about the introduction of Making in schools solely as a means to achieve a STEM pipeline. Like Chachra, I am also troubled by the implications of revering Makers. When we exalt technology and its wielders, we find ourselves in a technological system that would indifferently employ us as laborers and consumers. Is technology really just a tool, or have we become the instruments?

I feel compelled to push back on the declaration to Make. Don’t just Make; do something that matters. We will not resolve any imperatives if we expend our limited endowment of time and resources on a Cambrian explosion of gadgetry. If and when it is time to Make something, let it be something that uses precious time and resources to benefit the greater good.

Also, let’s give voice to those who wish to say, “I am more of a [thinker/learner/dreamer] right now than a maker, and that is OK.” We might start by putting away our Arduino banana pianos, sitting on our hands, and listening for a change. Finally, let us honor the billions of people who spend most of their lives making things better instead of making more and better things.

The dystopia of “mass-Making” painted here—i.e. a future that glorifies making stuff, and where indoctrination begins in childhood—is admittedly extreme, perhaps even unlikely. I do not advocate an end to Making, but instead more clarity on its intended purpose. My problems with Making— its commodification, limited accessibility, resource intensiveness, opportunity cost, and emergent alignment with industrial and military interests — can be mitigated. It requires vigilance, dialog, new cultural norms and lots of tinkering to ensure that Making stays free, but it is one of many problems worth solving.

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