Sunday, May 21, 2017

Maker Faire 2017: Begin the Begin

And now the Maker Faire rant.

Bay Area Maker Faire (this weekend in San Mateo) was hot and crowded. Neither are the fault of Make or anyone else. To a certain extent "crowded" is a feature; it means tickets were sold, and Make is having trouble financing the Faire already. The heat is by itself not a problem, but combined with crowds you get a lack of access to shade and water that makes the Faire more difficult to endure (especially for those of us who are getting a little older -- or for the many who are bringing little children.)

And it is a given that economics drives the event. Sales (and booth rentals) are what covers the costs. But sales pushes the Faire to be about presentation. And, as with so many things, offering distraction for kids to bring in those parental dollars gradually takes over from any other goal. Maker Faire always had an element of spectacle and an element of hucksterism, but the desire to attract crowds and to have something to offer that will cause parents to bring children means these are eclipsing other aspects.

Aspects like sharing, education, information, trading, and networking.

The rest of the rant/Open Letter below the fold:

There are larger trends in the Maker world, and forces much, much larger than it. Many of the things that made the modern Maker possible are paradoxically causing its collapse. Nimble, small-scale, computer-aided manufacturing made it possible for individual hackers, clubs, groups, and small startup companies to imagine and create and then produce things of a quality and scale previous difficult. But that same manufacturing, and that same rapid diffusion of the knowledge base, makes it possible for less-small companies (up to the big players, the Apples and so forth) to jump on those same ideas and imaginings and bring them to market in a slick form almost as fast as the hackers and start-ups can.

3d printing went mainstream. IOT went mainstream. And IOT in particular is being swallowed by a larger and vastly more well-established industry, the lifestyle industry. Fifteen years ago it was a cute hack to monitor the soda machine in one building at MIT via the web. Five years ago there was an off-the-shelf package to have your car send GPS location to your phone. Now there are packages to remotely change the color and intensity of all the lights in your home sold at the local hardware store.

The elephant in the IOT room is net security, which is going to change the playing field drastically. I would not be surprised if the tools and the regulatory environment which is eventually cobbled together to address that favors the large industries over the individual hacker.

Make appeared at a moment when the technologies, the economies, and the social situation was ripe for it. For small-scale individual attempts to solve problems in novel ways unconstrained by the usual standard practices, paradigms, licensing and regulatory environments. It came at a time when there was an increased social sensitivity to people being ignorant of if not actually locked out of understanding and control of much of the technological world around them, and had been almost coincidentally handed tools to unlock some of these black boxes.

It was a needed lesson but it has been both digested and is in the process of being co-opted. STEAM is everywhere now. Hackerspaces are a tested business model. Small-volume manufacturing, shipping, and rapid prototyping are in use across industries.

And, of course, business -- increasingly, the existing mega-players -- have sensed profit and moved it.

Make still has a purpose, and the strongest purpose is permission. That core purpose is, in my opinion, even more necessary now as many things which had been the province of Makers have been taken over by commercial entities. The first desktop CNC machines or IOT applications were open-source, open-hardware hacks put together by a community and shared within that community. The modern machines and applications, no matter how they seem to fill the same ecological niche, are either virtually or genuinely closed; proprietary, protected black boxes that do not share and are not open to the kinds of hacks that made them possible in the first place.

Maker Faire is still a meeting of the tribe and as such a mass affirmation of purpose. It is also outreach. For those aspects the Faire is still worthwhile. As a benefit to the new Maker its value largely remains. For the experienced Maker, however, not so much.

What the new Maker -- or the person who has just been introduced to the concept but has yet to consider themselves a Maker -- needs is that core value I spoke of earlier; permission.

Permission has two aspects, two strongly related faces. The first is permission to open the black box, to void the warrantee, to jailbreak the phone, to ignore the "no user serviceable parts inside" sticker, to try it anyhow. The second is permission to fail. To wreck the device, to try to make something cool and fail to get it to work.

They are in short psychological, and largely come out of societal trends and mores. The first confronts a set of internally absorbed instructions to obey authority and mistrust your own abilities. To let your betters or the experts or big business tell you what you are allowed to do and how things work and what you want.

The second grows out of a zero-sum, winning-is-everything philosophy, and the entire formatting of education as a procedure to make sure you don't fail the scheduled tests. It is not too much to say that members of our society are scared of failure. Attempting and failing is considered worse than never trying in the first place.

Failing is a good thing. But you need to learn how to fail. How to land in such a way you don't break any bones, how to get back up again, and how to figure out what went wrong so you can try again.

For most of us, permission can never be completely assured. As comfortable as I may be in approaching many new and scary things, there are places where I still shy from the attempt. Even experienced Makers benefit from that constant assurance that, yes, it is possible (and that, yes, there's no shame even if it turns out that, for you, it wasn't).

And, yes, for thousands of fields of endeavor, the hardest part of getting in is still learning where to start. Of learning the basic shape and parameters, where the assets are and what they look like, what the community is and how to contact it. And Maker Faire still offers that.

So for the experienced Maker, the new Maker, but most particularly for the person who has yet to learn that most essential Maker lesson, the Faire does a valuable service.

For the experienced Maker, though, the benefit of the current Faire stops there.

This one was particularly unfocused and disorganized. (And I don't mean in a functional sense, although there really could have been more provision for places to sit down and have some shade). I was particularly looking for Raspberry Pi stuff and there was little to no documentation on where it might be. The few people with anything Pi to show -- or to sell -- were scattered randomly about and it wasn't until late in the day when the crowds had thinned out that I was even able to find those.

This was not helped at all by the discontinuation of the "Dealer's Room." Instead of a central sales area for things that were appropriately portable, with a handy single cashier, this was left up to individual booths.

(Since many of the booths were from manufacturers selling services or multi-thousand dollar machines, there wasn't a lot of table sales there either).

My only intent this Faire was to buy some Pi. Otherwise I was going to wander a little and make time to take in some lectures. The latter was also disappointing. They were scheduled for a half hour each, and most of the stages the surrounding noise and other distractions made that effectively even less.

Again the main thing achieved was permission, and introduction. There was no time in that format for anything beyond the sheerest beginner. But what was striking is that there were NO "upper-division" courses being offered. All was "My first Pi"; nowhere was "Better use of arguments with GREP." (Not real examples).

The same is of course true of the tables. But here the booths, the presenters, were largely at fault.

First off, the majority of the people manning the booths didn't understand (or couldn't communicate) anything about the product or project there. Of course you are trying to man a booth for three days, and you are going to bring friends (or in the case of, say, Tormach, send mostly lower-payscale employees).

I had some lovely talks anyhow, and thank you those who put up with sleepy, unhappy, dehydrated me.

In any case, the projects aided and abetted. These were largely closed boxes. Commercial products, often. One of the nice people who put up with me was a salesman I practically third-degreed on his printer (one of the "you can run it from your cell phone!" hypes I mentioned in an earlier post). But it took that kind of in-your-face to drill through the "here's a box you want to buy, it does cool things, trust us" to the essential hack that we come to Faire to see and admire and share and learn from.

Which is sad because -- well, in this same example, this printer was indeed a hack so clever it is hard to believe no-one else had thought of it. And if Maker Faire was still Maker Faire they would have led with that.

And this is what is getting truly lost, and why I'll probably give the Faire a miss after this. The sharing, the education that goes beyond, "Guess what? You can print in 3D!" The sharing and the bouncing of ideas off other minds.

Most of the musical instrument builders were gone. Most of the electronics was gone. Most of the tools were gone. What was left was increasingly finished product, shiny black boxes you should purchase (and in far too many cases, shiny shiny boxes your kid will bug you to purchase). Selling, for those young people, the concept of education, the flavor of education, the -- not to put too fine a point on it -- a Cargo Cult of education.

I am worried the Make movement will succumb to the same Lifestyle disease, the kind of disease that makes buying the right kind of skii clothes the thing, and actually skiing is forgotten in the rush of, "Look at me, I'm a skier!"

I don't want hacking and Making to become a packaged commodity, because the essential nature of it is antithetical to packaging. You can still rock climb in the fanciest, shiniest, most-hyped-ever climb gear, but you can't hack by pressing the power button on a black box.

In that light and in that contest the current Maker Faire is mere distraction. In what it has become it is no longer an effective player. Fortunately, that does not hold true for at least one local smaller Faire; the East Bay Mini Maker Faire retains all of those elements, from the Symphony Instrument Petting Zoo (not its real name) to the two-hour classes, that make it worthwhile.

And it is that Faire I will restrict my attendance to in the future.

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