“Making” the Future: Conclusion of Making & the Maker Movement blog post series

This blog post is the fifth (final) of five of the blog post series, “Making and the maker movement: A democratizing force or an example of cultural reproduction?” See the first blog postsecond blog postthird blog post, and fourth blog post.

The Maker movement evolved out of Punk and DIY culture and has grown at a rapid pace over the past six years, spurred by the creation of Make Magazine and the Maker Faire. A manifesto has been published (Hatch, 2014) and ‘how-to’ guides on making and building makerspaces abound (Makerspace.com, 2012; Bagley, 2014; Kemp, 2013; Lang, 2013). Touted as havens for techies, artists, and entrepreneurs, makerspaces are being developed at an astounding rate, both domestically and internationally. Makerspaces are community-operated facilities that provide access to the tools of production, usually wood shops, metal shops, and digital fabrication technology.

While frequently described as community centers, most makerspaces are membership based. In 2013, 33.6% of makerspaces required membership and 33.3% required membership or a daily usage fee (Dougherty, 2013). Costs of membership at maker spaces can range anywhere from $30-$200 per month, and the more expensive memberships usually come with increased levels of access, for example, a building key for 24/7 access to the space. They are perceived as powerful learning environments, supporting project-based learning, design learning, and experiential learning.

Makerspaces are operating as independent entities, in schools, as well as folded into legacy institutions, such as libraries and museums. Major funding agencies, including the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are funding grants to support and develop maker initiatives (IMLS, 2014; National Science Foundation, 2014; Dougherty, 2012). In addition to journalists and politicians, academics have started studying Making from a number of disciplines and perspectives, including the social sciences, education, and STEM fields (ex: Honey & Kantor, 2013; Ratto & Boler, 2014; Norris, 2014).

The extensive discourse regarding Making and the Maker movement is primarily centered on the opportunities that Making creates for society, particularly for manufacturing, entrepreneurship, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. It has been said that the maker movement is ushering in the new industrial revolution (Anderson, 2012). In 2013, the Huffington Post published an article titled “What is the Maker Movement and Why Should You Care?” which concluded by stating,

Makers will continue to be found in fields ranging from food to crafts to technology. And together, they will push each other forward to invent and build new and innovative things. Many technologies that will drive this growing population are not even built yet. In effect, the maker movement has only just begun. (Morin, 2013)

While the Maker movement has just begun, it has serious political implications. Politics are inherently power-structured relationships (Millet, 2000), relationships that are made visible through discourse analysis. In an article published in Slate, an online current affairs magazine, the Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Tom Kalil, wrote,

The Maker Movement is important for a variety of reasons. First, it promotes values that are ends in themselves, such as creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-expression. Second, it has the potential to get more boys and girls excited about STEM, in the same way that chemistry sets inspired previous generations of scientists and engineers. Third, many manufacturing companies complain that they have many job openings they can’t fill, and they need more welders and machine tool operators. (Kalil, Extreme marshmellow canons, 2012)

Making has been embraced by the Obama administration and in June 2014, the first White House Maker Faire hosted “students, entrepreneurs, and everyday citizens who are using new tools and techniques to launch businesses, learn vital skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and lead a grassroots renaissance in American manufacturing” (Office of the Press Secretary, 2014). Kalil and Miller also stated that,

The rise of the Maker Movement represents a huge opportunity for the United States. Nationwide, new tools for democratized production are boosting innovation and entrepreneurship in manufacturing, in the same way that the Internet and cloud computing have lowered the barriers to entry for digital startups, creating the foundation for new products and processes that can help to revitalize American manufacturing. (Kalil & Miller, Announcing the First White House Maker Faire, 2014)

The language used here connects Making to deeply embedded national narratives: American Values, the perceived STEM crisis, and the revival of American manufacturing. The political Maker discourse identifies Making as an expansion of, and solution to, these politically motivated narratives, the veracity of which scholars regularly question (Hira, 2010; Anft, 2013 ; Salzman, Kuehn, & Lowell, 2013; Yi, 2014).

The public discourse emanating from practicing Makers places less emphasis on the economic opportunity of Making and instead focuses on the universal appeal and egalitarian nature of Making; the definition of ‘Maker’ is not limited to those engaged with tools of digital fabrication. In Chris Anderson’s book Makers, he writes,

We are all Makers. We are born Makers (just watch a child’s fascination with drawing, blocks, Lego, or crafts), and many of us retain that love in our hobbies and passions. It’s not just about workshops, garages, and man caves. If you love to cook, you’re a kitchen Maker and your stove is your workbench (homemade food is best, right?). If you love to plan you’re a garden Maker.  Knitting and sewing, scrapbooking, beading, and cross-stitching—all Making (Anderson, 2012 p.13)

The idea that ‘we are all Makers’ is repeated constantly in the media and popular press. Yet participation in Making, particularly at makerspaces, is heavily dominated by affluent white men. This disconnect between discourse and reality can be seen in the demographic information from Maker Faire, the most popular and visible annual gathering of self-identified Makers in the country. Of the over 160,000 Makers and Faire attendees in 2012, 66% were male, the average income was $117,000, 87% graduated from college and had engaged in some kind of post-graduate work, and 67% were married.

If technical tinkering, STEM, and digital fabrication are the economic forces that will empower Makers, and women and people of color are not participating in these activities in a visible way, that power will remain unequally distributed. If Making continues to be driven by economic and national interests, transformative opportunity may be lost; as I have shown throughout this series, this direction both creates and reproduces a culturally divided space without equity. The universalist discourse of the Maker movement ignores differences in power, access, and status (Dunbar-Hester, 2014). When it is described as a revolution, it is industrial (Anderson, 2012), charged with spurring economic innovation and a mythical return of American manufacturing. The Maker movement is not “…transforming innovation, culture, and education” (Maker Media, 2012) when it is tied directly to the STEM crisis and STEM education; it becomes part of a reform movement, not a revolution.

Yet Making has the potential to facilitate a social revolution: in how we learn, how we share, how we collaborate, how we consume and produce—Making changes everything (Gauntlett, 2011). Research has provided strong evidence that Making, and the creativity and divergent thinking that it requires, is central to the health of society, is good for individual happiness, and when done collaboratively, can transform the quality of life in communities (Gauntlett, 2011). If Making becomes an open platform, as opposed to a another pipeline for STEM careers and the narrative of American prosperity, it might actually give everyone the opportunity to change the world, not as entrepreneurs, but as pursuers of ideas who change the world by changing what we know about it (Edwards, 2008).

A path forward

Public libraries across the country are reaching out to their communities to engage in making and these initiatives and organizations might provide a platform and entry point for Making for all communities. Library makerspaces have grown at an astounding rate over the past three years and have garnered substantial media coverage (American Libraries Magazine, 2013; Torrone, 2011; Mitchell, 2014; Bagley, 2012; Ginsberg, 2013; Kroski, 2013; Hamilton, 2012). As these spaces are folded into existing library space, budget, training, and IT structure, it is possible to create access models that mirror other library services that are supported by community tax dollars and free to use.

Library makerspaces are facilitated by librarians and connect directly to their mission, “…to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” (Lankes, 2012); a public library is a catalyst for life-long learning (Chattanooga Public Library, 2014). Edwards contends that,

Catalysts are indispensable. From the nudge that sends the nervous ballerina onto the stage to the enzyme that sparks cellular life, catalysts precipitate change that would otherwise not occur owing to some obstacle. Since obstacles exist, change—or innovation—would be impossible without catalysts. (Edwards, 2008, p. 1)

This blog series has identified many obstacles preventing the Maker movement from having any lasting transformative effect on society. However, librarians have a unique opportunity as catalysts in their community to precipitate change that would otherwise not occur in the Maker movement: changing ‘we are all Makers’ from rhetoric to reality.

As stated in its mission, TASCHA explores the design, use, and effects of information and communication technologies in communities facing social and economic challenges. As noted on the TASCHA site, Innovation Spaces and the Future of Libraries are growing areas of our research. Our goal through this project is to bring awareness to the less visible aspects of the maker movement in order to help community organizations developing innovation spaces better understand both the benefits and challenges.

This blog post is the fifth (final) of five of the blog post series, “Making and the maker movement: A democratizing force or an example of cultural reproduction?” See the first blog postsecond blog postthird blog post, and fourth blog post.

Access the works cited for this blog post