Makers: Yesterday Meets Tomorrow [Social Change]

In the late 1950s and early '60s, young people everywhere began to get fed up with the lifestyle of their parents' generation, and the counterculture was born.  We all know about the great legacies championed by these young people (the civil rights movement, environmental reform, war protests, art, music, drugs) and the avenues they opened up for us today.

Something we tend to forget is that the counterculture generation was perhaps the last to grow up learning a set of valuable skills most of us today never really think about anymore, things like woodworking, baking (from scratch!), sewing, metalworking, and general craftsmanship.  It's weird to imagine this, but the consumer-goods boom really only started around the time the counterculture was forming, and it was against this consumerism (and many, many other factors) that the counterculture formed its governing principles.

Cue the 21st century.  We were thrown into the "future" with promises of flying cars, Star Trek style interactive computers, and faster-than-light travel.  None of these really panned out (YET.  I'm still waiting for my jetpack), but in the race to innovate, companies have used lower and lower quality materials, QC procedures, and generally have lowered the standards of manufacture while increasing the price with the justification that as commodities, they are obliged to charge what the consumer is willing to pay.

And this place we're in now, where technology is largely proprietary and owned not by the community but by private corporations, is precisely the location from which the counterculture was trying to push us away.  Unfortunately for that philosophy of quality-above-all-else, the counterculture has largely assimilated itself into the mainstream, and its members have families, jobs, mortgages, and practical problems of their own, seemingly erasing the possibility of accomplishing this goal.

But there is always hope when an idea embodies a basic human ideal.  In the past few years, slowly and largely under the radar, a new movement has been growing around the idea that ALL technology should be available to ALL.  They call themselves Makers, and their exploits are not only impressive, they are downright revolutionary.

The idea is to take back the means of development, fabrication, and production, and to do so in a way that produces something USEFUL, DURABLE, and INNOVATIVE.  Using quick-fab techniques based on programmable microprocessors such as the Arduino, Makers have developed unique art, productivity tools, instruments, and other unclassifiable but undeniably cool stuff.  Other tools employed include 3-D printers and scanners, both of which can cost upwards of $50,000 if bought commercially but can be BUILT FROM MAKER-SOURCED KITS for less than $1,000 apiece!

And it doesn't end there--in a bid to recapture the means of production, workshops are being built that just blow away any previous attempts.  Organization and convergence are the buzzwords for this movement--you can expect a serious Maker to have fewer tools that do more things, and many of which are made at home.

The movement, while largely unnoticed, has made some gigantic contributions to our society as a whole.  Most notable are the introduction of the Open Source mentality, popularized by Canadian blogger and author Cory Doctorow and American Beard-Wearer Richard Stallman.  As the inventor of the GNU public licensing scheme, Stallman is directly responsible for the post-DRM opening of intellectual property licensing and management, which has been vastly popularized through Doctorow's writing.  Their philosophy is if you create something of high quality, people will pay for it.  Period.  Case in point:  Doctorow's recent chronicle of a hypothetical future, titled Makers was released entirely open-source and free to the public, and as a result made a profit almost instantly.  This is in contrast to authors and musicians who submit their work to large labels or publishing houses whose rights management software simultaneously raises prices and limits viewership, thus delaying the date of first profit.

In a heart-warming scene of collaboration and camaraderie, the Maker movement seems to be crossing generational and other social barriers with ease, bringing people together over their basic desire to innovate and create.  MIT runs a low/high tech lab that focuses on innovation with crafts and textiles, and there are groups of food innovators, music innovators, materials innovators, and citizen-scientists, all contributing to the success of this movement and meeting in popular locations to spread their ideas.  Younger generations may focus on the computational aspects of the movement, reverse-engineering popular proprietary tools and recreating them as open and free software, or simply creating new and innovative ways to create on platforms that have grown relatively stale.  Meanwhile, older generations may feel more comfortable working with the skills they learned as young people, innovating in the areas of product maintenance, durability, repurposing, and fabrication.

The idea, though, is that no one should be pigeonholed by the options available.  Once accepted, this philosophy states that anyone has the ability to create new ways of doing and being.  Thus, the movement has resulted in unprecedented levels of choice, variety, diversity, and personalized services.

Rock on, Makers everywhere!


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A blog about social change, written from Brooklyn, New York. Currently looking for contributors.