Sunday, May 25, 2014

Make Philosophy

There is a particular intersection in the Venn Diagram of crafts, hobbies, high-tech entrepreneurs and DIY that has been packaged by commercial enterprises and largely embraced by a significant and growing number of enthusiasts as the "Maker" movement.

Like all movements, it is not monolithic or homogeneous, it is evolving, it will not last forever and it is far from perfect.

What I'm interested in asking is; in what ways is Maker different from past (and ongoing) activities with a similar label? Tandy (under different corporate owners of course) has been selling kits for leather crafts back at least to when they advertised in the back of comic books. Radio Shack originally sold surplus electronics parts to Ham enthusiasts. People in a thousand professions have had to create or re-engineer the tools of their trade, from physicists building an experiment to clarinet players improvising a ligature. And DIY is a well-established side of auto repair and home improvement.

My impression is that the Make movement differs (while still building on the groundwork of others) by being more focused on the process. This leaves us with an odd juxtaposition of technologically-aided expediency, and an embrace of failure (or, rather, iteration as inherent process). What ties those together may be innovation.

First on failure. Many communities exist within a framework of a well-documented, potentially regulated, mature technology. The impetus towards someone wanting to fix the brakes on their car or learn to play clarinet is to learn "how it is done." Learn established practice. In fact, not learning established practice is considered failure.

Make philosophy is about learning and innovation as an ongoing process. There's nothing wrong with failure. There's even less wrong with success.

Which makes a good pairing with the emphasis on finding new ways to do things. Since you are constantly innovating, you aren't at any point "failing to do it right." Instead, you are failing to make something new that works.  Yet.

This is something so basic if I was making this as a list of tenets, it would be #2. The reaction of many people to some task out of their comfort zone, whether it is cooking a cake or writing a piece of software, is a scared and frustrated, "I don't know how to do that." The proper reaction for a Maker is, "Cool! Something I don't know how to do...yet!"

There is what looks like a dichotomy between project and process. The process is paramount; Make is about Making, not about the results. But at the same time, the project is the form. The Maker does not set out to learn to weld; they set out to make a bike. Welding is one of the skills they need to learn in order to complete it.

It seems like a paradox, because they may get interested in welding other things, and the bike project may fail or be abandoned, but it isn't, because the take-home is that learning is simply better when it is task-oriented. And that's a big STEM lesson, too.

Theatrical arts are about expediency, and innovation is celebrated whenever it brings a new look to the stage or cuts down the labor in achieving a desired effect. Where Make differs from theater is an almost obsessive focus in leveraging new technologies. Innovation within Make could be characterized as, "Let's find a faster and more efficient way of doing this," but it is more often better stated as, "There's got to be a way to automate this/use lasers/use a computer."

So there is always interest in high tech. And that may make Make an artifact of an era; the moment when computational power and micro-manufacturing brought the price point down on CNC to where individuals could access it. 3d printing is already moving mainstream, and very possibly other key technologies embraced by the Make movement will follow, leaving them with little unique to say.

But this leads us into the third tripod of the philosophy; sharing. Crowd-sourcing, networking; all of these have been done by crafts and hobbies since there were mimeograph machines and public libraries willing to let clubs use a back room. Where Make is different is, again, the technological utilization; seeing the new social media as a way for collaboration to be broad-based and incredibly fast.

Which changes the shape of it. Clubs and guilds work on something closer to a cell structure, where a small number of practitioners act as gurus to teach the next generations. With wikis and Instructables and the blogosphere Make is more of an ongoing brainstorming session, a massive array of online whiteboards, in which skills are passed around and added upon in a constant round.

These I think form the core tenets. There are other threads, inherited from other movements; self-sufficiency, information freedom, open source/open doc/open hardware, recycling, greenware. The last are more observed in the intent than in the result, however! And there is a growing movement towards outreach; to get people who wouldn't normally consider themselves capable of crafts or repairs to get that confidence, and to teach the next generations. Make hooks into STEM that way; using Make as a way to create a new generation that isn't technophobic, and to inspire them to go deeper into sciences, math, and engineering than the often hacker mentality of Make.

Make no mistake; combining expediency, technological solutions, and crowd-sourced intelligence leads to a hacker mentality, a "I don't understand this but I downloaded some blueprints." And at some point you need to move beyond understanding just enough to build the gadget, to being able to engineer it properly.

Except. Except those sorts of deeper skills in science and engineering also seem to fall into the Maker embrace of, "I don't know yet but I'm dying to learn." More than any crafts or DIY movement of the past that I am familiar with, Make seems willing to dive into basic science; to pull out the calculators and look up the materials tables and try to get some hard numbers down.

I don't know if this is because the basic information is so much more widely available, or because we have tools that are disposed towards calculating and generating graphs (that is, a lot of Make is passing through computers at some stage or other), or because the kinds of tools -- laser engravers, CNC routers -- step away from some of the complexities inherent in tools and industrial processes with decades of history to approach tasks in closer to a spherical cow approximation. They are closer to brute-force, is what I mean. There are a hundred different milling procedures and tools on the manual end, but 99% of CNC milling is done by running one single tool around and around a whole bunch.

In any case, despite the drives to find new methods all the time, Makers have a deep and abiding respect for the traditions and skills of the older ways. So unlike the hacker, the Maker does not fool themselves; they recognize the need for engineering and the skills of the engineer. They are just more willing than most to throw themselves into something, with full awareness of the gaps in their knowledge and experience.

Which also might be a tenet. Beyond failure, beyond hacking, beyond innovation, there is an abiding attitude of, "I don't know if this will work. It might even blow up. So.....let's try it!"

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