Seismic Shifts: Dark Ages, Industrial Age, and Now…the Maker Age?

Douglas Rushkoff in Times Square.

At the ground level, the Maker Movement is empowering people in garages and makerspaces to hack, tinker, and share technology to suit their needs rather than wait for others to make it for them. But collectively, the Maker Movement has set something much bigger in motion. It’s a force that has the power to change the course of history. That’s heady stuff, but according to thinkers Douglas Rushkoff and Karim Asry, that’s the potential of the Maker Movement. They see us standing on the edge of a new era — the Maker era. Both men spoke on this point at World Maker Faire New York 2013.

The Industrial Revolution Reconsidered

The impact of the Industrial Revolution cannot be underestimated. It touched virtually every aspect of life — economic, social, political, and environmental. Starting in England in the 18th century and rippling out across the globe, new manufacturing processes, steam power, coal power, the growth of cities, rising population, central banking, and wealth creation changed the world and continues to do so today. But are we better off? Rushkoff is not so sure. Rushkoff is the author of the book Present Shock. In it, he argues we’re living in a new era in which the omnipresence of media and media-delivering devices have combined the past, present, and future into an always-on “now,” where the priorities of the moment trump all else. And he says this unwelcome change has its origins in the Industrial Revolution. While improvements in sanitation, life expectancy, and social mobility are hard to deny, he argues that this temporal disruption continues to be one of the most profound effects of the Industrial Era.PresentShock Rushkoff explains that in the Industrial Era, “time became money” as men (and later women) left the home and farm to the city to work in factories and industries for wages. And that change in our sense of time, he says, has robbed us of our autonomy, connection to each other, and even our humanity. And he says it’s gotten worse. Fast forward to to the Digital Age when computers and later the internet were supposed to free us from our desks and allow us to save time and resources and become more efficient, productive, and connected. Rushkoff was an early booster of the Digital Age, but has since become a critic of what he sees as an insidious time suck that all but demands we stay connected to our devices round the clock. The freedom promised by this technology and our devices has instead become a prison, he says.

A Second Dark Age?

For Rushkoff, the Maker Movement offers the chance to reset the clock, as it were, to a more human-scale, localized, and decentralized economy. Kind of like the good old days of the Dark Ages.The Dark Ages get a bad rap, he says. The Late Middle Ages, as they’re also known, was a time of great prosperity where craftspeople created and sold things of value for other people. It was a peer-to-peer economy rather than an employee/employer relationship, he says.”It looked like Burning Man, or Etsy, or the Maker Movement,” he said. But the rise of central currencies, banks, and chartered monopolies in the 14th century set the stage for Industrial Revolution, he says. “Central currency required growth. Chartered monopolies turned former craftspeople into workers on the clock. [This was] when the values of efficiency and value extraction replaced those of quality and value creation.” And Rushkoff says it’s been downhill ever since. The Digital Revolution wasn’t a revolution at all, he says. It was more of the same, more work and less free time. And this industrial, 24/7 system is taking its toll. “It’s an incoherent lifestyle” he says. “It pulls you out of the natural rhythms of life, things like day and night… it’s an economic model that can only destroy the planet. If we don’t begin to unravel this now it’s going to crack all around us.” Some might say it already has.

The Maker Moment

The Maker Movement, he believes, is the antidote. Already he sees a shift from a “time-is-money economy of debt-based currency, corporations, and hourly wages to a real-time steady state ecology of alternative currencies, creating value through making, and direct peer-to-peer exchange.” He moved out of New York City so he didn’t have to take a higher paying work in order to afford to life there. He subscribes to community-supported agriculture. He tries to do things that don’t involve money like favors and giving. The goal is to “de-monetize” his life. But he’s looking for an evolution, not a revolution.”The steps are as tiny as they need to be,” he says. “I don’t think you do it between Monday and Tuesday, but as you do it, it slowly trickles out to everything else.” He’s brought this message to Maker Faire in a presentation titled: “The Industrial Age is Over, Welcome to the Maker Age.” He came to Maker Faire because he sees it as “the clearest and happiest expression of human advancement and human potential.” While Maker Faire is a celebration of DIY technology, Rushkoff insists he’s not a technophobe. “I’m not anti-digital technology in the least. I’m anti the stupid use of technology… I think Maker Faire is really about inspiring and motivating people to develop skills.” He wants us to learn to use technology in ways he thinks will truly set us free — while we still can.”There’s a window of opportunity,” he says. “[The question] is whether we take it.”

Made in Spain

Karim Asry.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Spain, Karim Asry says the Maker Movement offers his country and southern Europe at large a lifeboat to rescue the region from a sea of debt, unemployment, and decline. He says it’s already happening in Northern Spain. And it all started in an old cookie factory. Asry is a former journalist for El Pais who switched careers and began advising the Basque government on transparency and open data. That led him and others to turn the defunct Artiach Cookie Factory into a co-working space and flea market. The cookie factory is located in Bilbao’s industrial Zorrozaurre area, an artificially created peninsula on the Nervión River. The area was created to facilitate ship traffic and heavy industry, but after the financial crises of the 1980s many businesses closed or left and sent the area into an all-too familiar post-industrial decay.

Zorrozaurre 002
The Artiach Cookie Factory.

As interest in the cookie factory grew among Bilbao’s digital fabricators, artisans, and “old school entrepreneurs,” the hulking building became home to the city’s first makerspace — Bilbao Makers. Since the cookie factory opened its doors to Makers nearly two years ago, old and new school artisans and hackers have organized themselves into a Maker collective that works on projects for local and international businesses, institutions, and private individuals. Worker-owned collectives are part of Spain’s culture. Mondragon, the world’s largest worker collective, was born in the Basque country in the 1950s. The cookie factory became a digital fabrication factory and a fertile making environment where practitioners of different disciplines cross pollinate. And, significantly, it’s attracting a growing number of youth hungry for 21st century skills. Asry calls the cookie factory an “underground business accelerator.”

The Maker Effect

Asry believes what’s happening in Zorrozaurre is similar to the “Bilbao effect” in nearby Bilbao, where a real estate and tourist boom followed the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in what was a rusting, dirty, post-industrial corpse of a city before Frank Gehry designed the now iconic museum of modern art. “It’s the golden mile now,” says Asry. But while the Bilbao effect rewarded those who owned real estate or could invest in businesses, Asry believes the ripple effect of Zorrozaurre’s Makers will be more democratic and broad. He calls it the “Maker effect.” It’s accelerating innovation and making it possible for a whole society to activate its latent potential,” he says. “This is grassroots innovation and it’s going to set up a lot of opportunity.” Asry came to Maker Faire New York in September 2013 to talk about the Maker effect and the changes he’s seeing in Spain and southern Europe.

Zorrozaurre 013

“The Maker Movement is finding its way in Bilbao, changing the soul of the city in the same way the Guggenheim did a decade ago,” he says. And these changes are sorely needed. The world financial crisis is particularly acute in Spain. Youth unemployment stands at a staggering 56.1%. Among adult males in Spain, unemployment is 25.3%, higher than Greece.

Light on the Horizon

Asry says the old jobs and old economy are not coming back. “At some point the machine broke. It just vanished.” The Maker Movement, with roots in Spain’s past, represents a renaissance, he says.

A scene from Alarmarte, a recycling art festival held at the cookie factory last year.

“I think this is a beautiful path to prosperity,” he says. “Spain and southern Europe cannot afford to miss this train.” Almost monthly he says he hears about a new makerspace opening in Spain — Galicia, Madrid, Seville, Barcelona, the Canary Islands. Bilbao’s Mini Maker Faire was the country’s first. “Revolutions sometimes start like that…the Maker Movement is the light on the horizon that we were looking for in our time of crisis.” For Asry, coming to New York and seeing Maker Faire for himself is an honor and a thrill. “I want to see Maker Faire for myself and how you do it. [The Maker Movement] gave us the tools to open doors that were closed before.” Douglas Rushkoff appeared on World Maker Faire’s Innovation stage on Sept. 21 at 3pm and Karim Asry spoke on Sept. 22 at 10:30am on the Make: Live stage. 

2 thoughts on “Seismic Shifts: Dark Ages, Industrial Age, and Now…the Maker Age?

  1. insidmal says:

    Love the article, but please proofread it :)

    1. sophiacamille says:

      thanks for the head’s up! I’ll look this over today.

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Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.

View more articles by Stett Holbrook


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