Reflections: Asa Calow, Madlab, Manchester.

In February 2016, we hosted Justin, Cat, and Guy, along with Lit Liao (Litchee Labs) and David Li (SZOIL) for an academic roundtable on ‘Critical Making, Community Building, and Global “Maker Culture”’. The roundtable co-incided with a MadLab visit from some key hacker-maker luminaries – Jimmie P Rodgers from Artisans Asylum, Marc Dusseiller from Hackteria in Switzerland, and Mitch Altman from Noisebridge Hackerspace.

The roundtable provided an excellent opportunity to widen the discussion around the place for “making” in society, and where the rhetoric overlaps with reality (for better or for worse) – in particular within the context of China and “mass innovation”. This blog post is an initial attempt to document the starting point for these (ongoing) conversations.

Make, hack, tinker.. much like the activities they represent these are words to be played with, to be treated as a pliable material: “Extra anchovy! Sandwich hack extraordinaire!”.

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This thing that happens in make-/hack/-tinker-/fab-space-labs around the world – building communities, sharing knowledge, making new ideas tangible – has proven (occasionally intentionally, frequently accidentally) to be of immense value to the people and communities involved, but also to the economy at large. And where there’s money, grand narratives are born, rhetoric is spun, reports are commissioned, and research is conducted; power and influence are wielded. In other words, shit gets serious.

Back in 2012, George Osborne announced that there was to be a “march of the makers” in the UK. More recently the Chinese Government announced a 5-year grand “maker” plan. Meanwhile, our local crafts fair (the likes of which is happening all around the UK, around the year) is now a “makers’ market”. So what do (Osbo favourites) Jaguar Land Rover’s new 3D printing-based manufacturing line, and John’s Saturday afternoon pickle stall have in common? Short answer: not much.

Does it matter that we stretch the meaning of these terms in new and interesting directions? Not really, we can and we should. And, that the world at large has woken up to the values of making and “maker culture” is overwhelmingly a net positive.

Sometimes, however, there is a flashpoint which challenges our collective understanding of what these terms actually represent. What you might call “growing pains”:

Back in 2012, Maker Media – publisher of Make magazine, chief Maker Faire organiser, and the pointy end of the grand “maker movement” narrative – announced that it was accepting a $10m grant from DARPA, the technology R&D wing of the US military. The resulting conversation has been (to put it mildly) stimulating, occasionally highly critical[1], resulting in ties being cut[2], and others to disassociate themselves entirely from being a “maker”[3].

And then, there’s Shenzhen.

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For many makehacktinkerengineers, including myself, Shenzhen has a siren call. It’s “the world’s workshop”, “Hollywood for makers”[4]; the place to which the western world has collectively and progressively outsourced its manufacturing – it’s “making” – expertise since the 1980s. To paraphrase Clay Shirky, the West’s maker past and (perhaps, optimistically) future, is China’s present.

What this means for China’s version of the maker movement is complicated – a glorious clash of re-imported “traditional maker values” from the West, mingling with the very much alive and kicking hands-on values embodied by David Li’s New Shanzhai, and a typically Chinese make-do-and-mend attitude[5]. Add to this mix a state of constant turbulent invention and reinvention, alongside a hearty does of Government rhetoric backed up by (always landscape-altering) funding, and what it means to be “a maker” gets more confusing still.

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So, in this landscape of Maker Carnivals, Maker Cafes, Government-sponsored (and largely empty) “Makerspaces”, and more, the best way to navigate this conceptual quagmire (at least for us at MadLab) is to go back to first principles – to find and collaborate with the people and communities with which we share common ground.

Driven by an enthusiasm to create and share, we know that people and places like Litchee Labs’ Lit, Shenzhen DIY, Dangerous Prototypes, Eric Seeed, and Xinchejian (to name but a few) will be around in one guise or another long after the makers’ dust has settled. Likewise at MadLab, we will always be driven by an urge to tinker, to play with new tools and materials, and work on new ideas with new people, regardless of whether they are “makers” or not.

Vive la new-old-new maker-but-not revolution!

[1] Evgeny Morozov, Making It, New Yorker January 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/13/making-it-2?currentPage=all

[2] https://twitter.com/maltman23/status/186997470180548609

[3] Debbie Chachra, “Why I am not a maker”, The Atlantic January 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/01/why-i-am-not-a-maker/384767/

[4] http://epaper.chinadailyasia.com/asia-weekly/article-4616.html

[5] http://fortune.com/2015/10/21/chinas-version-of-the-maker-movment-puts-the-u-s-to-shame/

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