Maker's mark: Why so many young techies are turning to tinkering

It’s true: Some 70,000 people attended an arts-and-crafts fair in Manhattan this past weekend. They milled. They performed callous-building feats of manual creation. And they demoed soldering, sandblasting, quilting, farming, injection-molding and all manner of human endeavor that showcases the meeting of opposable thumbs with materials in space and time.

It was the World Maker Faire, the roving “festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness” that invites “tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students and commercial exhibitors” to show what they’ve made, and what they’ve been making. Even after seven years of these events, the exuberance of the Maker Faires is still discomfiting. Sure, this time things were a little less off-the-grid than in years past, despite all of the robots, drones and robots that make drones on display; but still, this year’s event was much more kid-friendly, with lots of neato colorful Build-a-Bear-style stuff that led many observers to wonder whether the Portlandia-and-Brooklyn-grown maker culture might be going mainstream.

Attendance at flagship Maker Faires and their many derivatives is up, visibility is up, and no one is declaring the Maker Faires “over,” as they cyclically do with Burning Man and TechCrunch Disrupt. So why is this strain of culture, the tinkering class, the one that’s gone viral in 2013?

It certainly was underpredicted. In fact, of all the imaginings of the future that proliferated in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the birth of the Web, exactly none foresaw America’s youth returning to colonial folkways — darning, churning, butchering and smelting. In the '90s, if you were ambitious and 25, you were supposed to open a bagel franchise in pleasant downtown Bucharest (glasnost!) or launch an allergy-product dot-com empire called Atchoo or Snot.com, to compete with the failsafe San Francisco blockbuster Gazoontite.com.

But, if you’ll permit a brief review: The markets in former Sovietland never stabilized or became intelligible enough for morally squeamish American small businesses. At the same time, the dot-com bust turned websites — almost every single one of them — into jokes, albeit necessary ones, which millennials were all too ready to abandon, for Facebook, mobile apps and almost anything with a lowercase “i” or capital “G” in front of it.

Alas, children of the 1990s — the ones whose eyes on college commencement day had been trained on Russia and the early Web — failed to clock this shift. So even as we Gen-X types have given up on our Warsaw-condos plan, we still habitually identify digital opportunities with the Web — that commercial dot-com space. At the same time, the younger set sees the Web as itself now Iron Curtained by an all-too-stable oligopoly (Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Facebook, AOL) that offers little chance for smaller players to do profitable work that also satisfies a creative itch.

Fortunately, the wily youth found something else, as they always do. Just as analog culture created digital culture, which then superseded it, digital culture — the Internet, the Web — created anti-digital culture: hands-on, 3D, live, DIY culture, which may yet leave it in the dust.

The hallmark of that culture is not that it rejects technology. Rather, it is fundamentalist about tech. It reclaims the “techne” (“craftsmanship”) in technology and turns the main event for participants into “making” and not “publishing” or “marketing” or “disrupting.” Maker culture is impatient with the 2D aspect of digital technology, favoring the 3D printing that is its sine qua non. (This year the Maker Faire debuted some one zillion iPhone covers printed in three dimensions.)

The earlier phase of digital culture made a fetish of the mind, abstraction and “ideas” (as in TED’s “ideas worth spreading”). It invented a new philosophy and social science — neuroscience — to enshrine those things. By contrast, this phase has as its totem the hands — and the newly available and cheap “tools of the industrial revolution,” as Mark Hatch, the former Navy Seal and CEO of TechShop puts it in “The Maker Movement Manifesto.” Hands and tools together, it turns out, can do tremendous things: It seems like a revelation after all the airy TED talks about dreams, ideas and the lovey right brain.

Maker culture, then, is an inspired cultural response to the widespread stress of digitization. Maker avatars may seem like digital natives, but they identify as farmers, steelworkers, carpenters and tinkerers. Some of their companies — like MakerBot, the world’s most famous seller of personal 3D printers — actually sell for a profit. But profit is not the goal: Makers tend to say they’re knitting or soldering mostly to play, to invent and to help. And, occasionally, to build their own drones.

People making stuff with machines — who knows what can happen?

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