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Codeathons, Hackfests, and Maker Fairs - Déjà Vu All Over Again
Volume 39, Number 5 - September/October 2015

A New Industrial Revolution

In his book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (Random House Business Books, 2012), long tail theorist and Wired editor Chris Anderson describes the maker movement as “a new industrial revolution … harnessing the new technology, helping to reboot the manufacturing industry.” Anderson explains, “[T]he past 10 years have been about discovering new ways to work together and offer services on the web. The next 10 years will, I believe, be about applying those lessons to the real world. It means that the future doesn’t just belong to internet businesses founded on virtual principles, but to ones that are firmly rooted in the physical world. This has massive implications not just for would-be entrepreneurs but for national economies.”

Others disagree about the nature and meaning of this movement. IEEE Spectrum’s Cass cautions, “you have to be careful about seeing this as a personal, experimental movement instead of as a commercial enterprise.” He thinks that is why few projects have moved into some type of commercial phase—even if they have been able to get initial funding through KickStarter: The costs and complexity of moving into some type of full-scale production are beyond where the movement is today.

If there is hope for this moving in that di rection, Cass sees it coming from China. “The Chinese government wants to sponsor maker space in a big way and because they have become of major engine of production for much of technology today, perhaps they might meet a goal of making a link between maker fairs and taking them down the road and shopped into factories and turned into immediate products.” But, he says, even in China, it was heartening to see that the organizers were saying not to think of makerspace that narrowly, that it’s about things that are made for fun, it’s about creativity.

Gregg Brockway, CEO of Maker Media, believes the maker movement is just getting started. “The costs of using tools and services for designing, prototyping and manufacturing physical goods continue to plummet. As this becomes cheaper and easier, more people will do it and we’ll see even more innovation.”

Some see functional problems developing i n the hackathon model. BlinkTag’s Nee believes while “many developers are tiring of hackathons—it is a big time commitment and a lot of work to participate in one. … the idea of people getting together to prototype, share ideas, and build cool things is here to stay and will exist regardless of corporate intervention.” He says that online tools are making it easy to organize hackathons around very specific top ics. “Many coders may skip the more corporate hackathons (although those tend to have the best food, perks, and prizes) and go for the more open source, community driven events.” He sees hackathons with more idea people than hackers as a problem. “[Y]ou need people to actually be able to build stuff. Also, when people come to a hackathon with a preconceived idea they want to get built, it doesn’t allow room for the idea to evolve and change.” He reasons, “Since hackathons are voluntary, poorly run hackathons or events without enough real hackers will not likely produce much good.”

Bushey sees a strong ongoing role for civic codes: “Civic technology usually [includes] a smaller group that tends to advocate for more open access to government, especially via open data and improved government websites. That’s a pretty well-established tenet of civic technology nationally.” The ongoing conversation occurring in the national civic technology and open government communities is focused on how this push for access matures and how civic tech should address today’s broader social issues respectfully and effectively. He acknowledges, “I don’t think anybody knows for certain what will come of this conversation, but there is definitely a recognition that the civic technology movement can and should play a role in addressing continuing and growing disparities found in our cities, states, and nation.”

Will Codeathons, Hackfests, and Maker Faires Last?

Despite the widespread popularity of these events, a larger question is how this movement can be sustained. With increasing involvement of the corporate sector and the rise of the personal computer, there was no path in the 1980s for allowing for any degree of user participation in software development. As a result, open innovation was lost.

I was around in the days of VisiCalc and other early software. This collaboration created an amazing connection with users/developers that benefited all—until it crashed. Companies became concerned about their intellectual and physical property. They decided to prevent user access to computer code through physical and legal means. No longer could users get access to the software that underlay their devices—and this continues today, Apple, for example, continues to claim full rights to the devices and operating software for the life of the device or service.

Some scholars have compared today’s maker movement to the late 1800s’ Arts & Crafts Movement, which was a reaction to industrialization and other social/political/economic realities of that era. Are these current “do-gooders” merely hobbyists who otherwise might be playing video games, or is there a political angle? Is the collaborative, open model something that might grow and develop further? Are we seeing a shift that might have the strength to last?

Linfield College professor Susan Currie Sivek has studied the utopian aspects of the maker movement, noting that “the development of this maker movement, as presented through Make, may end up paralleling the rise and fall of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the pre-World War I era, in which those suspecting that great cultural change would result from the impending Industrial Revolution initiated a call for the public’s return to the values of small-scale artisan production” (“We Need a Showing of All Hands: Technological Utopianism in Make Magazine,” Journal of Communication Inquiry, 35(3):87–209).

“We’re seeing massive increase in the interest level around innovation and making,” Maker Media’s Brockway explained to me. While he points out that the interest in tinkering with tools and technology isn’t new, there are several things help ing drive the interest in making. “Perhaps the biggest,” he says, “is that the tools and resources available to makers have become dramatically more accessible and in many cases free.” He sees the interest of big companies and other large organizations as great validation for the maker movement. Rather than stifling the movement, Brockway expects it will fuel it. “Giving makers more ways to have an impact will attract more makers.” It’s particularly exciting to Brockway to see some large government agencies such as NASA are starting “to tap the creativity of makers to help solve problems,” and he hopes this spreads.

Another aspect Sivek found is the “narrative of technological utopianism and restoration,” which unites the “persistent concept of craftsmanship as self-actualization—the culmination of human development—with a new narrative, unforeseen at the time of the Arts and Crafts Movement …” The movement, according to Sivek, “incorporates the … unknown realities of ecological collapse with the alleged potential of artisan workmanship and creativity for resolving these significant problems.” Underlying this make movement is the failure of traditional political parties to govern, the movement to open data and open government, and the availability of unprecedented tools and communications/publication avenues to all peoples. We can only hope that this aspect of the maker movement—the commitment to create, to work for the common good—will prove to be not only a model, but also a new tradition.

Nancy K.Herther is the anthropology/sociology librarian at University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities Campus.


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