Monday, May 19, 2014

Bay Area Maker Faire 2014

This is nothing but some personal impressions; I went one day, didn't do any research or interviews or collect any numbers.

Maker Faire is changing. The Maker movement itself is changing. Some of that is the inevitable mechanisms of capitalization. The unique idea realized by an individual is built on to become the shared knowledge of a small number of dedicated people, then in turn becomes aided, accessorized, and finally thoroughly commercialized -- and domesticated -- by the big players of established industry.

Even when something has too little market, or is too hard to domesticate, for it to become a mass-market product from Mattel or Apple, even when the idea stays within the core group that first came up with it, the trend is for the tinkerer to become entrepreneur. At the 2012 Maker Faire they might have been there with a hand-built prototype. At the 2013 they might have a advanced-tinkerers-only grade kit. At 2014 they've had the thing assembled in Taiwan with an injection-mold housing and a shrink-wrapped sales package.

The thing is, over the years I've been going, the proportions seem to be shifting more. And the outliers -- the knitters, the bee keepers, the art cars; all those that don't quite turn into electronics devices that can be packaged and sold at a big-box store -- are less and less in evidence.

There is also not so much an increase in the number of children, but a change in the focus. It has become almost the theme park version of itself. More and more, the kind of exhibit set up at Maker Faire is not something with deep science, serious hacking, and a lot of geekery, but something that you can take the five-year old to gawk at when Six Flags is closed.

And this hooks in to the merchandizing, too, in that most of the Maker Shed (aka dealer's room) wasn't tools for hackers and tinkerers, but was kits the parents could buy in large quantities (the vast majority of which I am guessing never get successfully assembled).

I am all for education, I am all for being open to all ages. I've blogged about working on electronics with my own young one. And I am definite that there is a need to especially reach out to younger people to give them the freedom to look inside the box and tinker with the insides; whether that "box" is a piece of consumer electronics, or the policies of the NSA. We need to confront the blank face of consumer culture; the "Sony knows what's good for you" attitude, and the "Apple has done all the creating for you so sit back" attitude, and realize that we all have the freedom to imagine better, demand better, and perhaps build better ourselves.

But I'm not sure this is being accomplished by turning most of Maker Faire over into eye candy and go-kart races to keep jaded children entertained, and brightly-wrapped but ultimately meaningless "kits" that parents can buy in large numbers as cheap pacifiers.

If there is any place left for geeky collaboration and the sharing of the joy of building and the arcane of technical and scientific knowledge, it may be in that Maker Faire is a convenient place to swap business cards, and apply those few seconds of face time that take what might be an otherwise only online collaboration out of that solipsistic existence. And like any mart, it has that unique advantage of being able to surprise you with something you didn't know to look for. Just wander the (shrinking) exhibits and see what catches your eye.

I can't say it was a wasted time. Even at a "eat hot dogs on the grass and watch the flaming octopus dance" level it is a fine weekend outing. And there are enough people still -- even in the less mainstream and wired-up crafts like carding or casting or confectionary -- that you can look, admire, talk, and maybe get a few hints here and there for your own projects.

Perhaps next year, though, work will allow me to come Saturday instead, and I can come at a time where we can gab and share ideas without quite the crush of crowds, the exhaustion that comes from the last day of the fair, and the ticking clock that is the pile of unsold inventory everyone is hoping they won't have to pack back into their vans at the end of the day.

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