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… 🙂


Genre fiction’s cultural cringe; the annual repeat showing

Paul Raven @ 07-02-2011

Damien Walter at The Guardian last week:

… new works of speculative fiction rarely receive the critical recognition accorded to their literary cousins, a fact most evident in the major literary awards, not least the Man Booker prize. In the last decade, British SF has been through a period of intense creativity and brilliance. […] Whether any one of these books would have swayed the Booker judges is an open question, but the fact that only one significant work of SF from this extraordinary decade (Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) was even longlisted suggests a systematic problem in the Booker’s treatment of speculative fiction.

Over the same period, the fashion of literary fiction writers borrowing ideas from SF has continued. Putting aside concerns that novels such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go lag more than two decades behind in their treatment of cloning and genetics, for the Booker judges to consider SF ideas when recycled by literary authors, but to ignore the source of those ideas, only highlights the narrowness of the award’s perspective.

Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon, as the headline asks? My money’s on “nope”.

As is Maureen Kincaid Speller’s, I suspect:

This is not to say that I am in any way advocating a rejection of the mainstream and a retreat to the teenage bedroom of the genre heartland, accompanied by a fading wail of “you just don’t understand”. Genre has its uses as a down-and-dirty taxonomic shorthand on occasion but I don’t believe these terms and definitions should be used to construct barriers, especially not in order to provide a platform from which to complain that people aren’t willing to make the journey through the barricade. It’s ridiculous and, dare I say, just a little childish.

Kinda similar to yours truly, right here last year:

… every time we moan that prizes like the Booker don’t recognise the genius that resides within our ghetto, we confirm the opinion we assume that they hold of us: provincial geeks with marginal interests and a persecution complex. We wear the bruised vanity of the snubbed underdog like sackcloth and ashes, and it does us a disservice far greater than being passed over by a prize that – by its own implications and history, if not outright admission – is just as focussed on a small (if ill-defined) set of aesthetic criteria as our own in-ghetto awards.

Let it go, people. Let it go.

As remarked in the comments thread of Maureen’s post, I’ve been that petulant underdog advocate myself in the past, and I think most people deeply involved with any subculture go through a similar stage. This is natural. However, when you’ve been sailing on the Good Ship Genre for a little while, you get pretty tired of seeing that distant landmass to port, and knowing that there’ll be an earnest but thoroughly done-to-death debate about how thoroughly mean it is of the people who live there not to let us settle on the beaches.

Lest it seem I’m picking on Damien, though, here’s a post from his personal blog where he makes a strong argument against attempts to technologize the fiction experience:

We won’t have novels with embedded videos either. Or sound-clips. Or RSS feed streaming content. And stories won’t be interactive. Most of all, they will not be interactive. Not that people will stop trying to do these things. They make perfect sense from a marketing perspective. The customer is always right. Prose fiction, says the marketeer, must adapt itself to the whims of the customer.

No. The customer must adapt themself to the demands of prose fiction. The book is defined by the fact that it takes time, and during that time you must concentrate on what you are being told. You do not get to lapse in to the zombie state of the television viewer. You do not get to choose what happens. The book does not change, the book changes you.

The book does not have a future. It is already the thing it needs to be.

I usually vacillate like a pendulum on that particular topic, but Damien can be pretty persuasive when his heart’s in his mouth.