Those of us immersed in the maker scene can’t help but wonder how it will all play out. Will we, at some point, return to the bad ol’ days of the last few decades when the word ‘crafting’ was associated with grandmas, ‘making’ with middle-aged shop teachers, and the closest thing to DIY was figuring out how to program your VCR? Throw out instead of fix, borrow money to buy cheaply-made consumer junk? It was a dark time.
Most would agree that we’re not likely going back to that mindset, but the question remains: just where is the DIY movement headed? Cory Doctorow’s latest book, Makers, takes those musings and plays them out decades into the future. In his story, the traditional economy has cratered, and who steps up? That’s right, hardware hackers, DIYers, makers.
At the beginning of the story, corporate executive Landon Kettlewell holds a press conference plugging Kodacell, his quixotic merger of Kodak and Duracell. What possible reason could there be to combine two failed, bankrupt corporations? Kettlewell’s dream is to create a maker company that specializes in monetizing DIYer projects with loans and know-how. Say two people in a garage need fifty grand to turn an idea into a business. Kodacell supplies the capital and a business manager, in exchange for a cut of the profits.
At first, Kettlewell’s revolution — dubbed New Work in the book — seems destined for success and Kodacell even suffers the tribulations of an up-and-coming corporation: employee poaching, ripoff companies, that sort of thing. We’re introduced to Kettlewell’s star makers, Perry and Lester, eccentric tinkerers with a million ideas. Kettlewell convinces tech blogger Suzanne Church to travel to Florida to cover the duo and provides a business manager to monetize their ideas. The five of them form the bulk of the heroes in the book.
The New Work revolutionaries find themselves facing seemingly insuperable challenges like cowardly investors, trigger-happy cops, and the makers’ own lack of business savvy. They gamble on new projects, some of which pay off, while others tank. In one important plot element, Doctorow explores how open source technology plays out in the business sector.
I loved the main characters, particularly Perry, Lester, and Suzanne. I didn’t always agree with what they were doing or saying, and sometimes, I didn’t even like them all that much, but in many ways, that made for more compelling heroes than mere stereotypes.
There were villains, of course, foils for the noble hackers and bloggers populating the story. For instance: Freddy, a vindictive blogger, and Sammy, the hard-hustling Disney exec. Ultimately, the central conflict seems to be an internal one amongst the nerds: being driven to monetize their ideas by greedy suits and struggling to keep their self esteem, sense of ethics, and dignity intact as their efforts pay off.
Will the magic leave the maker movement? Will we see it co-opted by suits? Time and time again, we see Perry and Lester battling to keep their ethos from being perverted — they don’t care if they ever get rich, they just want to keep on making. In that sense, Makers is as much a cautionary tale as a speculation on what the future will bring.
If you want an imaginative and enjoyable exploration of the future of making, Makers is definitely worth the read.
Makers by Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor Books
Note: True to his pro-Community Commons beliefs, Doctorow has made Makers available for free download on his site.