My first thought: this could be the world’s biggest gathering of creative minds – aside from the Internet, of course. The crowd is wonderfully eclectic: I see Park Slope parents mixed with geeky hobby tinkerers, steampunks, robot lovers (many accompanied by robots they’ve built themselves), Japanese cyber-punks, and the odd eccentric (Metrocard Man, I am looking at you).
My husband and I have arrived at Maker Faire 2012, the 15th installation of the event which celebrates science, engineering, arts and crafts, and do-it-yourself enthusiasm, created by Maker Magazine in 2006.
Something for everyone, even steam punks.
Our first encounter with a maker project is the Social Gumball Machine. Activated via Twitter and text messages, a young boy struggles to figure out how to open it, desperately tugging at its lid. A friendly Maker Faire visitor explains the mechanism to him, urging him to ask his parents for assistance. A moment later, the boy gets his candy, revealing the wonder of the machine to the onlookers, who quickly pull up their phones to score their share of free candy. Maker projects certainly make for great conversation starters and catalysts for interaction.
Finally fed and satisfied after a stop at the Asia Dog stand, we walk over to the Auditorium, passing super-sized wheeled cupcakes and bicycles disguised as giant bees and butterflies. Two famous thinkers are about to speak about the Maker Movement and we don’t want to miss it: author/entrepreneur Seth Godin and Wired Magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, who is also co-founder of robotic manufacturing company 3D Robotics.
But first, Godin.
We arrive a bit early, catching the tail-end of Massimo Banzi and Alf-Egil Bogentalk’s Arduino hour. The Auditorium is filling up with the white noise of visitors shuffling about, trying to find space for the upcoming big-name attractions. We get lucky and find seats in the center. Godin’s talk addresses the transformational effect that industrialism has had on our culture. While its contributions cannot be understated, industrialism has also helped shape a society obsessed with optimization, constantly striving to make things faster, stronger, smoother, better. Such a society designs for compliance; it processes the risk-taking makers poorly.
This risk-taking stems from the very nature of hacking and science, which are about doing things over and over again and failing until you succeed. Our industrial heritage has brainwashed us to do things right; we balk at uncertainty. But without a willingness to fail, one cannot innovate. Godin concludes that what we need isn’t a new wave of industrialization but rather ways of becoming more human. The Internet, being a platform for making connections and making things that matter, is the most powerful tool to help us do so.
Next up is Chris Anderson (joined in the ensuing Q&A by Bre Pettis, co-founder and CEO of MakerBot Industries). His talk mirrors the narrative of his new book on the Maker Movement, suitably titled Makers. Anderson too explores the impact that manufacturing revolutions have had on our lives. He hypothesizes that we’re currently experiencing the infancy of a third industrial revolution, sparked by the advent of affordable advanced desktop 3-D printers. This new revolution has been made possible via the democratization of creation (thanks to the 2-D printer) and distribution (thanks to the Internet), which we’re now beginning to see applied to manufacturing. 3-D printers provide alternatives that lower the barrier for innovators to become entrepreneurs, enabling them to opt out of the traditional innovation model that is structured around economies of scale. The implication is that the biggest shift doesn’t lay in how things are being made, but in who is making them.
(The 3-D printers, and MakerBot in particular, are clearly the stars of the show at Maker Faire. The 3-D printing section is perpetually jam-packed and applications of this new exciting technology are sprinkled throughout the many maker stations; Bre Pettis speculates that 30% of Maker Faire is MakerBot.)
While we leave the Auditorium and stroll towards the Arduino station, I ponder my Maker Faire experience. Anderson’s prediction that the Maker Movement could be the Next Big Thing, boosting American manufacturing, is surely a compelling vision for the future. But the reality is that people have always been making things. The radical difference today, and what has swung the gates wide open for things like the Maker Movement and Maker Faire, is that it’s never been easier to find good and useful resources for free or very cheap. More importantly, it’s never been so easy to find and connect with others who share your interests, however nerdy and niche they may be.
I reflect on Anderson’s assertion that that ease of use is the biggest barrier for people to act on their urge to tinker and experiment. By completely removing distance and time from the equation, the Internet is eroding the complexities of becoming a maker of things. And in doing so, it’s enabling the practice of learning by doing to grow to the extent that many now call it a movement. That’s really quite a tremendous and powerful thing; our deeply rooted desire to cultivate practical knowledge by crafting something with our hands is gaining widespread, global popularity as a complement to the theoretical knowledge that has been celebrated for the past few hundred years. This raises important questions about the purpose and design of our educational systems, which promote such linear thinking and our mental models of success and progress.
At the end of the day, as we head back home after seeing the marvelous life-size mousetrap, witnessing people being spun into nausea in Red Bull’s G-Force machine, and buying a lovely laser-etched Ada Lovelace ornament for our Christmas tree, I formulate my key takeaway: as human beings, we’re all inherently creative. We’ve all got a maker and tinkerer inside of us. The Maker Movement is an amalgamation of interest networks, cultures, and mindsets that share a common pursuit of learning and creative expressing through the act of doing. Whether you’re inspired by its ethos, or just feel an itch in your fingers to make something, anything, the best time to get started is right now.
This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the blog from our friends at 3rd Ward.