Open World: Why Are We Makers?

Technology Workshop
Open World: Why Are We Makers?

The Open World series of articles documents Liam Grace-Flood’s year of traveling all over the world exploring maker culture and spaces.

For about 6 months now, I’ve been traveling the world, exploring how we make things — and how we support other people’s making things — in an incredibly diverse range of social, political, and economic contexts.

Many people in the places I’ve been use the language of the Maker Movement to describe what they do. They’re Makers, they work in Makerspaces, and they think of their work in the larger context of Maker Culture. But for every Maker, there are many more people who make things but don’t identify with that language. Why? And why do the people who do use “Make” language decide to do so? What does it even mean to be a maker, to run a makerspace, or to participate in the Maker Movement?

Through this year’s experiences, I’ve been developing my own answers to those questions. That process has been driven by my hanging out and working in a really broad range of creative spaces, and by many critical conversations with people about Making. Here I’ll share some ideas on what the Maker Movement, Makerspaces, and Makers look like in different places— ideas which have been foundational to my own changing conception of what Making means to me, what brings people to, or pushes them away from Making, and how that might change in the future.

Let’s start big, with the phrase “Maker Movement,” itself. In an interview I did with Will Holman of Open Works, he said:

“Using the term “movement” implies a centralized political or unifying ideology, and I don’t think either of those things exist. The agenda of Maker Faires (the dominant public face of “making”), insofar as one exists, seems far more based in adult play, hobbyist pursuits, science education for kids, and the uniting of a lot of previously scattered tech subcultures under one broad umbrella.”

I think Will is right. But the Maker Movement has also been lauded as more than just play or hobby— as a promise to disrupt, decentralize, and democratize traditional systems of education, innovation, and fabrication. So what is it? Is it a hobbyist movement, or a serious mechanism for innovation?

In talking about the Maker Movement, those kinds of dichotomies are visible everywhere. Evgeny Morozov in his New Yorker essay, Making It, challenges whether it’s returning power to the people, or just a new way for corporations to sell us things and field new innovations. Many people conflate the movement with high tech, with digital fabrication, and coding, while for many makers it’s an intentional return to low tech.

Does the maker movement challenge or affirm hierarchy?

The Maker Movement is also lumped in with, and takes inspiration from myriad disparate historical movements, like Arts and Crafts, Swadeshi, Industrial Arts, and contemporary communities: Open Source, Appropriate Tech and the Whole Earth Catalog (to name just a few). All of these ideas across space, time, and ideologies are included in the Maker Movement— depending on who you ask.

Maker Media, eager to be inclusive, is deliberately vague in their own definition, saying, “The Maker Movement embraces innovation, creativity, and learning to improve our communities and create a better future. Tinkerers, educators, parents, and professionals are included, because we are all Makers.”

And that sounds great! Because it does work to include everyone’s different definitions and practices. On the flip side, does it dilute individual ideologies and experiences to lump them all together with this one word? Separately, is it accurate in describing the Movement’s reality or its aspirations? Those questions rely on “Makers” to provide answers. So let’s talk about them:

Spencer Wright runs the excellent “The Prepared” newsletter, among other things. When asked how he defined “Maker,” he wrote, “More than anything else, I think “maker” is a cultural signifier – something that denotes a certain sense of whimsy, combined with a bit of precociousness and craft. In the best cases, makerism is simply a gateway to something else; it’s a stepping stone that eventually leads to a product business or a manufacturing operation. Zach and I have put a *lot* of energy into making this transition over the past few years.” He goes on to say that he actively eschews makerism in his own work– Why? Because he doesn’t think “Making” is “serious.”

He’s not alone in that idea. Makers are often thought of as only a small subset of people who make things. That narrowing makes sense if you’ve ever been to a Maker Faire– you’d see many projects seem to belong together, and don’t necessarily represent the full spectrum of Making in the original sense of the word. Will Holman’s quote applies here, too– most “makers” seem to focus on certain tech subcultures and/or hands-on STEM education/play.

That reality runs counter to Maker Media’s definition of “Makers,” which is purposefully more broad and inclusive: “At the heart of the Maker Movement is the understanding that making is uniquely human. As people learn to develop projects, they become innovators, makers of change. We exist to help more people participate so that they can acquire the tools and expertise necessary to make their ideas become real.”

Why might people choose to identify with the maker movement? Why might they choose not to?

I, and many people, respond well to that definition: that makers don’t make do, they do and make. That they don’t take the world at face value, but are empowered to make the change they want to see. And that the Maker Movement is about opening up that empowerment to everyone, and helping people of all backgrounds recognize themselves as Makers. While that language is definitely inspiring, it doesn’t reflect the reality that, according to Make:’s own surveys, their audience is mostly affluent, educated, and male. Why is it that a movement whose language is based on inclusivity has somehow managed to become kind of narrow?

One theory comes from Josh Giesbrecht. He writes in Thoughtlost, “Making shouldn’t be anything new, but the maker movement is pretending otherwise…. The maker movement isn’t born out of a desire to say, “I made this!”, but rather from those immersed in the digital saying, “Look, I can make actual things! See? I’m not just playing pretend, this really is making something!” This is the real reason we’re not including knitting, mechanics, ceramics, painting, etc in our “maker” movement.  The maker movement is born out of a uniquely digital insecurity, of those who’ve spent their lives making things that don’t physically exist and suddenly found a way out.”

Nowhere does anyone say that to be a maker you have to use an arduino, or a quadcopter, or a 3D printer, but for some reason (and Josh Giesebrecht’s is not the only theory on this), “Makers” have certainly skewed hard in that direction. That’s created this self-sustaining cycle of perception that Makers work in digital, even though nothing about the word’s formal definition, or Make:’s definition, implies that. And that’s especially harmful because those digital fabrication tools are expensive, and largely developed by groups traditionally represented in tech. For how much we celebrate the disruptive potential of digital fabrication tools, it’s not clear if they actually lower the barrier to Making for everyone, or if they’ve just reinforced the same barriers for the same people who have traditionally been excluded.

Deb Chachra, a professor at Olin College, took it even further in her (very worth-reading) article, Why I’m not a Maker, for the Atlantic: “The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.” She continues with a Gloria Steinam quote: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” It follows that the Maker Movement’s unilateral celebration of Making has upheld the devaluing of traditionally female tasks like caregiving.

Her argument bears some similarity to Morozov’s: although the maker movement has been celebrated for its promise to disrupt and redistribute power, in practice it may have simply supported extant power dynamics in a new way.

Deb Chachra raises other concerns about calling everyone Makers. Not only because she’s understandably “uncomfortable with any culture that encourages you take on an entire identity, rather than to express a facet of your own identity (“maker,” rather than “someone who makes things”),” but because it can isolate and devalue people who’ve dedicated their lives to caregiving, fixing, or managing. To say that making is “uniquely human” is to devalue the humanity of those who don’t make.

Deb Chachra is “uncomfortable with any culture that encourages you take on an entire identity, rather than to express a facet of your own identity (“maker,” rather than “someone who makes things”).

I think these are really important critiques. But “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it, and responsible for changing it.” (Grace Lee Boggs). As accepting as I am of people who can’t or choose not to Make, and as admiring I am of Deb Chachra’s thinking on this, titling her piece “Why I am not a Maker,” puts her at a disadvantage in speaking truth to Makers and creating change within the movement.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ work offers other insights: when facing the duality of her creative work as an artist, and her maintenance work as a mother, she simply “named maintenance as art.” That simple act of naming her work reconciled the differing perceptions of what she called development and maintenance, and recast avant-garde art, a mostly male arena, to include traditionally female tasks (and her, a woman).

It’s worth calling attention to the fact that Ukeles’ continuing to call herself an artist may have better positioned her to change art than if she had made those critiques from outside it. Grace Lee Boggs would probably attest that the place to determine the Maker Movement is inside the Maker Movement.

And it’s good to remember that these aren’t just Maker questions— they’re human questions. How do we choose which groups to identify with? And when we have disagreements with those groups, should we double down in our commitment to them, or should we move on?

Moving on: Makerspaces, as prominent physically-based communities of Makers, play an outsize role in representing Makerism to people.

Just looking at the word itself, you would think that a makerspace would be anywhere people make things. But if that were true, the word would become so vague as to become meaningless. For that reason, many different vocabularies have been developed to describe places where we make things: Fab Labs, hackspaces, idea foundries, artisan/ maker asylums, labs, workshops, studios, ateliers, etc., and each has taken on its own niche meaning. Analogous to the “Maker Movement” itself, the word makerspace, rather than being an umbrella term, has become a particular subset of these spaces for making.

And that can get really confusing. On Wikipedia, the search term “Makerspace,” redirects to “hackerspace”: “A hackerspace (also referred to as a hacklab, makerspace or hackspace) is a community-operated, often “Not For Profit” … workspace where people with common interests, often in computers, machining, technology, science, digital art or electronic art, can meet, socialize and collaborate.” (Quoted April 2, 2018)

This definition might be the accepted one. But in my experience, hackerspaces and makerspaces aren’t the same thing. For starters, spaces that call themselves makerspaces are more focused on physical objects and hardware, while hackspaces are more focused on digital work and software. That’s one of many confusions that have led to many spaces avoiding this language and creating their own, eg. many of London’s “Open Workshops.”

And of course, many spaces don’t conform to this definition but still identify with the Maker Movement. The fact that we lack a nuanced vocabulary to describe these spaces actually means that the array of spaces using the Makerspace label, or more broadly, identifying with the Maker movement, are incredibly diverse: everything from social clubs to start-up incubators and accelerators; from professional craft spaces to open source hacker communities; counter-culture hacker spaces to techshops; grassroots appropriate/affordable tech centers to high tech labs. I could go on. The tools and resources they have, as well as a space’s culture can vary immensely.

Above is a scheme Gareth Owen Lloyd from Machines Room in London showed me, for how he categorizes different makerspaces. He lamented that many people still think all makerspaces are the same, even though investing even a little time in different spaces will convince most otherwise. It’s true you can plot most makerspaces on this coordinate system, but there’s a ton of other diversity that it doesn’t take into account, like whether a space is run by its users or is staffed, or what kind of stuff people make there (software, hardware, metal or wood-working, textiles, cooking or whatever). There’s too much diversity to adequately express in a simple graphic— or in the current vernacular we have.

Maker Tour, which has spent time in many of the same spaces I have, profiles each by 6 topics: “Goals,” “Uses,” “Pedagogy,” “Documentation,” “Business Model,” and “Specificity.” Makery categorizes “labs” as “art,” “bio,” “educational,” “fablab,” “hackerspace,” or “medialab,” but obviously many spaces could fit into several of those categories, some might look nothing like the others in its category. And these are just two French examples. Around the world, the breadth of makerspaces and language people use to describe them is immense.

It’s worth saying again that many of the ambiguities of defining what Making means to people have analogs in defining what makerspaces mean to people. And the line between those two things is really ambiguous itself— some people conflate Makerspaces with the things that happen in them, like “making,” hands-on STEM education, DIY, tech-infused art, and Design Thinking.

In conversation with Katie Krummeck (formerly of Stanford’s and SMU’s Deason Innovation Gym, and currently directing SMU’s k-12 Maker Education Project) she said, “Design Thinking is a very specific process with specific methods that help people come up with solutions to human-centered problems. In contrast, Making is a much broader range of tools and practices to realize and externalize any idea, regardless of the creative process used to get to that idea. It is important to distinguish what makes Design Thinking unique because it offers a powerful methodology that we risk diluting if we understand it as all the same thing.”

Can the same be said for Making and Makerspaces? Is mixing all these different things together diluting their meaning?

In her piece in the International Journal of Designs Learning, Katie Krummeck and her co-author Rob Rouse write, “Maker culture (i.e., valid and sustained participation in the practices, activities, and mindsets at the core of the maker movement) is an important and often overlooked aspect of successful makerspaces. We believe the power of maker-based instruction lies in the shared vision and practices of the community members, not in the tools and materials that occupy the space. Thus, although there are several detailed manuals describing how to outfit makerspaces (Burke, 2014; Hlubinka et al., 2013; New York Hall of Science, 2013), there is far less information available about how to organize a successful maker culture in such spaces.”

It’s true, much of the emphasis on what makerspaces are is on the tools they have and the things they make. That means some of the most interesting spaces I’ve seen, which practice some kind of maker culture, don’t identify with the movement because they don’t have the 3D printers or laser cutters they understand as prerequisite.

[aside: probably my favorite definition // vision for makerspaces came in 1884 from William Morris, well over 100 years before anyone was using the word makerspace. Even then, his writing was less concerned with the physical space, and more with the social values it represents.]

So what do we do with all this information? It is not exhaustive or scientific. It’s not representative of everyone who associates with or talks about Makerism. But it’s a starting place for a bigger conversation about what Making means to us and why we participate. It’s a starting place for a more inclusive and understanding movement, where we understand just a little more about what this stuff means to other people, too.

I’ve tried to do exactly that myself: to be intentional in my participation, by reexamining my understanding of what the Maker Movement is, and why it is:

Because now, “in this society, power is commonly equated with domination and control over people and things.” (bell hooks) That implicit understanding of power is only becoming more widespread through the growth of Western Capitalism, and even more so in growing acceptance of Authoritarianism around the world. At its best, I see the Maker Movement as a rejection of that spreading conception of power, and as a redefinition of power as creative and life affirming.

One dichotomy when making is mutual aid vs. mutual struggle, or competition vs. collaboration.

It’s about coming together not just to redefine power, but to build that more progressive and positive power: power to self-determine and to self-express, power to create and innovate.

The phrase “coming together” is foundational. The Maker movement is to me about thinking, making, and doing that can be crowd-sourced, crowd-funded, and shared generously— rather than centralized in and guarded by a few corporations and institutions. It’s about open-source, and the belief that we can accomplish more if we work together than if we work in isolation or in pure competition.

It’s about grassroots innovation, and the idea that products work best when they’re by the same people they’re for. It’s not just about offering a lifestyle where we can make what we want, but where we can make what we need– without the implication that everyone needs to make. It’s not just about filling a niche in the market, but offering people a way to create change what the market might not accomplish on its own.

It’s about integrating different traditions: not just of making products, but of making art, and things that might not be commodifiable. It’s about the meeting of traditionally male and traditionally female roles, to make innovation more empathetic and human-driven, and bring innovation to care giving.

It’s about a continually expanding idea and practice, creating channels between people, resources, and communities where there previously haven’t been, to continue supporting new connections and innovation following social justice and equality in opportunity.

It’s about openness and honesty — making the right tech, rather than high tech. And thinking not just about the things we make, but the waste we make, too. In response to Spencer Wright, It’s not about being amateur, but about a willingness to be amatuer, to work in new media and disciplines, and to experiment.

It’s not just about making things, it’s about making community, making a difference, and making a more just, open, and collaborative world.

But that’s just me. What does making mean to you? Is it something you identify with? Let’s keep talking about where Making is and where we want it to go. Together, maybe we can get there.

Thanks to Mikhaëla Dietch, Frankie Devanbu, and Saba Mundlay for advance readings; and thanks to all those quoted or interviewed. Icons in feature image by Arthur Schmitt via the Noun Project.

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Liam Grace-Flood

An artist, engineer, and researcher, Liam makes all kinds of things, including public policy, fine art, electric motorcycles, and computational models. His passion for making is rivaled only by his dedication to ensuring other people have the resources they need to make, too. In that vein, as a 2017 Watson Fellow he's exploring how open workshops democratize and decentralize education, innovation, and industry to make better things, people, and communities.

You can find him at his website or on instagram

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