Makers and breakers

Paul Raven @ 08-08-2011

Hmmm. Here’s a piece at Wired called “Big DIY: The Year the Maker Movement Broke”. Much as with the rockumentary whose title they’re alluding to, though, I suspect at least some folk are misinterpreting the use of the word “broke”.

The Sonic Youth tour diary movie – featuring much footage of Kurt Cobain at the beginning of his destructive relationship with success and fame – is titled “1991: The Year Punk Broke“, and people tend to read that as “the year punk broke through (to the mainstream)”. That’s a valid reading of the sentence and the phenomenon it describes, but there’s a double-coding here, too: in the process of breaking through to the mainstream, punk ceased to function in the way it had done before. The year punk broke; the year punk became broken.

Punk broke because it became a money game, just like stadium rock but with holey jumpers and done-by-your-mate haircuts; “punk” still exists, but when it’s a label that can be applied to glossy off-the-peg music-product that seeks to appeal to sentiment and nostalgia rather than inflame sensibilities (Sum41, Blink182, Good Charlotte… the list is, regrettably, almost endless), the original (and admittedly loose)conception of punk as a rebellion and/or counterculture is scarcely more than a convenient marketing fiction. This is what will befall the maker movement as the money-men move in.

(Of course, if you know the real history of 1976 London, McLaran and Westwood, SEX and the Pistols, you’ll be aware that punk was commerce right from the outset, despite its very deliberate design to offend and outrage. But this is relevant, too; punk’s commercial side was an attempt to build an economy within an economy, just like the maker movement.)

Right. So, the irony of Wired‘s piece, which seems to largely consist of folk gleefully reporting corporate and venture-capital interest in the so-called “Maker Movement” (which, like “punk”, is a convenient journalistic label for a lot of folk doing very different things for very different reasons, but which share the loose bond of not doing whatever they’re doing for a fat salary or shareholder remuneration) is that they’re reading “broke” as exclusively “broke through to the mainstream”, with no “ceased to function as it began”. Woo-hoo, it’s going mainstream, kids! We’ve taken the fight to The Man, and the man has woken up to what we’re saying! Right on!

Well, this is the point where I get to put on my jaded thirty-something’s hat and say that nothing good ever comes your scene going mainstream, unless you’re one of the very small percentage of scenesters who gets to catch the crest of the wave. When the money flows in, the ethos flows out; those with the least to lose always take the most risks, and when the money starts flowing to that chosen few, the result is flabby navel-gazing from them and not-entirely-unjustified (but very human) resentment from those who got left behind because they stuck to the code and didn’t sell out.

And from what I’ve observed of it, maker culture is very much like a punk version of geekdom (or a geek version of punkdom, mebbe); it’s defiantly low-budget, and cares nothing for what outsiders think of its activities or appearances. “Maker heroes” will change the public perception of makerdom, because with heroism comes money and media attention, and those milieus demand a different aesthetic entirely – one of polish and glamour and acceptability, even if not the high gloss of traditional corporate tech.

If there’s any lesson to be taken from punk, grunge, rave and any other subcultural scene that went mainstream, it’s this: the aesthetic is not just a veneer. If you start changing the box to make it more appealing to more people, then what’s inside the box will start to change as well, because otherwise you’ll start getting a lot of returns; simple market forces. (And totally inevitable, too, by the way; I’m not naive enough to postulate some hypothetical ur-punk left to continue in glorious unspoiled defiance forever and ever. Culture expands by subsuming its edges;the edges grow outward by defacing and recombining things abandoned in the centre. Any minute now, Pop Will Eat Itself at Rushkoff’s Ecstacy Club. Yeah, I’m so Nineties that I shit Global Hypercolour; deal with it.)

From the edge of the marquee, Bruce Sterling accuses the Wired scene of drinking their own kool-aid, and I think he’s got a point… though there’s a hint that Tim Carmody can see the dissonance in what he’s reporting and what he’s claiming it means. From the closing paragraphs:

“Americans are building things again,” reads a General Electric report. “From Makerbot to GE’s Ecomagination Challenge, an open source competition to find the best ideas in cleantech, opportunities abound today for anyone with the motivation and imagination to get their hands dirty and create things that can solve some of our biggest challenges.” It may be sweeping corporate PR, but it suggests some of the possibilities and stakes of what’s happening.

Adafruit’s Torrone predicts that any or all of the following may happen in the next year or so:

  • We’ll see more large companies embrace the maker movement, [through] acquisitions, sponsorships. More companies / tool makers [will] compete to get makers interested. (IBM really adopted open source; it will be a little like that.)
  • We will see a publicly held maker company.
  • We will see more VC money flow in to maker companies.
  • We will see political leaders visit places like tech shops or maker faires when they realize this movement is one our best hopes to fix the US economy and education system. (Will we see Obama at the next maker faire? We should. If not – whoever is running against him should [come].)

When I asked him whether this was a best-case or worst-case scenario, Torrone was coy: “This is the best case and worst case depending on how you look at it.” Either way, the future of the DIY maker movement is coming.

Torrone’s right; which answer applies to you depends on where the investment falls, and for most makers that’s gonna be “elsewhere”. PR, acquisitions, publicly-held companies, VC money, big politics… these things are what maker culture considers itself the antithesis to, that it was a rejection of or rebellion against. These things moving in will not result in the “mainstreaming of maker culture”; they will result in the maker-ing of mainstream culture, the tricky bits of the philosophy and lifestyle stripped away until whatever’s left can be marketed using the established channels. No more bespoke gizmos made by nimble-handed fiddlers with the time and motivation to scrounge around for parts; instead, off-the-shelf Arduino “solutions” with instruction sheets – no soldering iron required!

Makerdom’s entire philosophy is completely opposed to corporate business models, but that aesthetic is sexy in these straitened times of tough economics; it’s that aesthetic that the corporates want, because it might sell things to consumers who currently aren’t buying anything they don’t think they really need; the philosophy will be left on the boardroom floor to be swept up, thrown out and – eventually – recycled by another countercultural movement further down the timeline.

(This is not, by the way, an “all corporations are evil” rant; corporations are just corporations, and they have certain behaviour patterns that are an inevitable result of their evolving to fill a certain apex-predator position in our economic ecology. Corporations get big and immobile, and cease being able to innovate; when that happens, they start seducing and/or preying upon smaller more nimble economic entities. That’s just the way it works; it’s a morally neutral set-up. It’s also a mirror image of how “mainstream” culture relates to “alternative” culture. Yin and yang, kids; can’t separate ‘em without destroying the circle.)

Of course, my assumptions here all hinge on cultural business-as-usual, or at least business-as-it’s-been-since-the-sixties, and there’s a definite feeling of economic and political fin de siecle around at the moment. Back to Sterling again:

… the status quo is getting so top-heavy and dysfunctional now, so obviously unjust and so riddled with mass unemployment that it’s possible to imagine some stricken region cracking up, abandoning IP, patents, safety regulations and economies of scale, and going into a full-scale Maker frenzy. Almost a wartime, victory-garden, scrap-metal economy. Could even be in the USA. Probably needs to be reframed from hobby activity to resilient civil-defense. Less of a stretch than that looks.

If I’ve read that right, he’s not buying the corporate makerdom future (nor am I – corporate makerdom is either an impossibility or an oxymoron, and the best you can hope for is [Arduino kits on Amazon/bondage trousers in Top Man], which is not the same thing), but he’s suggesting that the philosophy behind the movement could become a solution to a volatile future in a region that decided to shake off the legacies of corporatism and go all DIY, all the time.

This is not the first time Sterling has made a blithe throwaway comment on a news piece that completely encapsulates the idea I’ve been planning a novel around, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. At least it means I’m onto something, I guess… :)

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6 Responses to “Makers and breakers”

  1. Gareth Stack says:

    Don’t see it… Cory Doctorow’s short story ‘After the Siege’ does a good job of mapping a likely future for a state that decides to go ‘patent-rogue’. We can hope!

  2. Adam Rothstein says:

    Nice summing of thoughts, Paul.

    - It seems that we (cultural observers of all varieties) are unable to understand capitalism as it’s own system, apart from culture. As you said, capital changes things. And yet, there’s a base belief that if something cultural is a good idea, it will eventually spontaneously produce profit. Therefore, the sudden burst of profit from Culture X is nothing more than the inevitable validation of X. When in fact, commodification is a precise process. Maybe a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you are and what X is, but a separate and distinct process from the original cultural production, nonetheless.

    - Anecdote: here in Portland, Oregon, I was assembling an art installation that me and my partner are building for no pay. As such, we’re using the cheapest/most-reused materials we can find. So, as I was cutting up this black fiber board to assemble a backdrop for a view-portal (that’s a longer story) I noticed that what was on the front of this board I was re-using was a sales pitch by a local creativity marketing firm, that was based around selling a lumber products company the idea that their branding should embrace DIY interests, whom are a hot market that would like to buy their new, expensive, forest products for use in their DIY projects. I chuckled to myself, as I cut up the board. I had obtained it from a local art non-profit called SCRAP that re-sells materials on the cheap that they get as donations. This means the marketing firm was in-tune enough with the local DIY scene to donate the board to SCRAP. And yet, this was probably about $50 worth of fiber board new, that had been used once, and then “thrown away”. Suffice it to say, the words “DIY” don’t mean anything any more, and things are in fact rather complicated.

    - Cheers to your last 2 sentences!

  3. zeroreference says:

    ‘Fashion’ might be a better choice of word than ‘Aesthetic.’ If you posit that “the aesthetic is not just a veneer,” then you have a contradiction in saying:

    “…that aesthetic is sexy in these straitened times of tough economics; it’s that aesthetic that the corporates want, because it might sell things to consumers…”

    If changing the form necessarily alters the content, AND vice versa, then as soon as a corporation tried to profit off of the FORM (aesthetic, or I’d argue fashion) of Makerdom, or anything else, it would implode. But what we’ve seen happen, is, as you say, the FORM of these things is quite successfully marketed (Iggy Pop, Lust for Life in a bank commercial, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, all art-rock and corp-sponsored, etc) even though the CONTENT of said movement may remain in the counterculture.

    Aesthetic seems like a too multivaried, theorized, term for what you are describing. More often than not, the AESTHETIC of a subculture is indeed lost in its gentrification – but its FASHION is not.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Hope this (editing-free) screed was at least mildly comprehensible

  4. zeroreference says:

    “If changing the form necessarily alters the content, AND vice versa, then as soon as a corporation tried to profit off of the FORM (aesthetic, or I’d argue fashion) of Makerdom, or anything else, it would implode.”

    What I meant here is that the SUBCULTURE would implode, and thus be of no value to the corporation. Sadly, the corporation would not implode. Now THAT would be one hell of a subculture!! Culture virus 0

  5. Sarah Ennals says:

    I tend to follow the arts/crafts strain of makerdom, which is beginning to notice that Richard Hayne has for some time been selling the mass-produced versions of the sort of stuff you’d see on Etsy – on the other hand, many crafting threads are all about how to knock-off stuff from Anthropologie (owned by Hayne) – which is either unconscious (?) retaliation or an indication that Pop is not the only thing that Eats Itself.

  6. Michael Stock says:

    Punk wasn’t commerce from the start, at least if you exclude the idea that most musicians would prefer to make a living playing music vs. their day jobs, and wish to sell merchandise/art to do so. To paraphrase David Byrne: it was a philosophy, not a style. New York punk preceded the Sex Pistols, and was diverse (Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, The Ramones). The Sex Pistols aped The Ramones style after The Ramones toured Europe. Which did lead to the unfortunate powerchord-downpicking-4/4 version of punk that those terrible bands you named spew forth. If the social/cultural “movement” (hobby) one happens to be clinging to receives a wider audience through whatever means, it seems that neither the aesthetic nor the ethos is in danger, just early adopters delusions of originality. How could the self-evident truths that fuel such lifestyle choices be effected by the uncool people doing it too? They can’t change the ethos and aesthetic that You as an individual adhere to, but they might dampen the feeling of difference in Your heart. However, if the activity has value to you, then what does it matter how other people live their lives? What does it matter if some people get paid to explain these activities to outsiders, and make a lot of money? There’ll be more materials even cheaper on Craigslist, left over from the folks who took a weekend class and decided “Making” wasn’t their thing. By the way, Sterling covers the possibilities of the last quote in his novel Distraction. But the tribal society that emerges is violent, dirty, and in constant competition with other tribes––i.e., there’s not a lot of time for weekend enthusiasts.

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