The (contested) street, finding new uses for things

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2013

From a photo-essay/collection thingybob at The Atlantic: Syrian rebel fighters and their homebrew military hardware. There are lots of shots of chaps lathing mortar shells, as well as crude hand-welded onagers made from shelving and rebar; that’s your continuity verification, a through-line of human experience that you can draw through the wars of centuries past. But these two are the ones that tell you we really ain’t in Kansas any more:

Syrian rebel fighters using iPhone as compass

Syrian rebel fighter using games controller to aim gun turret


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… 🙂


What Watson did next

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2011

Impressed by Watson’s Jeopardy! victory? Found yourself with the urge to build your own (scaled down) supercomputer artificial intelligence in your basement using nothing but off-the-shelf hardware and open-source software? IBM’s very own Tony Pearson has got your back. [via MetaFilter; please bear in mind that not all basements will be eminently suited to a research project of this scale]

Meanwhile, fresh from whuppin’ on us slow-brained meatbags, Watson’s seeking new challenges in the world of medicine [via BigThink]:

The idea is for Watson to digest huge quantities of medical information and deliver useful real-time information to physicians, perhaps eventually in response to voice questions. If successful, the system could help medical experts diagnose conditions or create a treatment plan.

… while other health-care technology can work with huge pools of data, Watson is the first system capable of usefully harnessing the vast amounts of medical information that exists in the form of natural language text—medical papers, records, and notes. Nuance hopes to roll out the first commercial system based on Watson technology within two years, although it has not said how sophisticated this system will be.

Ah, good old IBM. My father used to work for them back in the seventies and early eighties, and it’s kind of amusing to see that their age-old engineering approach of building an epic tool before looking for a use to put it to hasn’t changed a bit…


Garage ribofunk going mainstream

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

Interesting to see it’s taken less than a year for coverage of DIY molecular biology to graduate from the comparative fringedom of H+ Magazine to a mainstream science publication like Nature [via SlashDot]. Notable lack of scare-stories and hand-wringing involved, too… though I suspect we’ll have this meme picked up by the tabloids before the end of the year; that’s a nice juicy OMG-terror-security-panic!!1 story just waiting to shift units to the easily frightened, right there.

What’s impressive is the level of sophistication involved, which (as others have pointed out) mimics the enthusiastic adoption of home computing by the cutting edge of geek enthusiasts back in the day:

Many traditional scientists are circumspect. “I think there’s been a lot of overhyped and enthusiastic writing about this,” says Christopher Kelty, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has followed the field. “Things are very much at the beginning stages.” Critics of DIY biology are also dubious about whether there is an extensive market for garage molecular biology. No one needs a PCR machine at home, and the accoutrements to biological research are expensive, even if their prices fall daily. Then again, the same was said about personal computers, says George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. As a schoolboy, he says, he saw his first computer and fell in love. “Everybody looked at me like, ‘Why on earth would you even want to have one of those?'”

[…]

No one knows how many of those 2,000 are serious practitioners — Bobe jokes that 30% are spammers and the other 70% are law-enforcement officials keeping tabs on the community. But many DIY communities are coalescing: not only in Cambridge, but also in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris and the Netherlands. Some of these aim to develop community lab spaces with equipment that users could share for a monthly fee. And several are already affiliated with local ‘hacker spaces’, which provide such services to electronics enthusiasts. For example, the New York DIYbio group meets every week at the work-space of an electronics-hacker collective called NYC Resistor, which now has a few pieces of basic molecular biology equipment, including a PCR machine.

Of course, there are real risks that come with the growth of a movement like this, but there’s also a whole lot of potential, which I think outweighs the risks if they’re managed sensibly (i.e. by oversight, transparency and strong networked communities, rather than by blanket bans and heavy-handed restrictions that would drive the movement underground, as well as potentially into a position of political radicalism). Viewed in parallel with the surge of interest in 3d printing and electromechanical hacktivism (which really is spreading very fast, alongside the hacker spaces that house them), things don’t look entirely unlike some unpublished proto-prequel to Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix. Who will you be: Mechanist or Shaper?


Wearable computing: the state of the art

Paul Raven @ 02-08-2010

Martin Magnusson got bored of waiting for the cyberpunk future we were promised in the mid-eighties, so he decided to build his own wearable cyberdeck rig. The version pictured [ganked from this Wired article] is a little crude, perhaps (I quite like the did-it-myself workbench aesthetic of exposed cables, personally, though it’d be a nightmare in a combat situation)), but he’s also managed to scrunch the bulk of it down into a little CD-case-shoulder-bag number for the more style-conscious geek-about-town.

Martin Magnusson's wearable computer

In case you’re wondering about battery life (which was my first question), Magnusson reckons he gets three hours of juice from four AA batteries, which is better than I’d have expected, though still not too awesome. Time to look at harvesting waste energy from the body, Mister Magnusson? 🙂


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